Democrat Marshall Story's decision to quit the 63rd Assembly District primary race and endorse Bob Epple has stirred allegations that Story may have struck an illegal deal to support his former rival and may have attempted to sell his endorsement to another primary candidate as well.
Peter Ohanesian, one of three remaining contenders for the district's Democratic nomination, claims that when he met with Story last week, Story talked of withdrawing from the race at the same time he mentioned having a $17,000 campaign debt.
"I believed at that time that Marshall was unaware that he may have been committing an illegal act of attempting to sell his endorsement to have a campaign debt paid," Ohanesian said in a statement issued Monday, the same day Story announced he was withdrawing and supporting Epple.
Link to Brown Hinted
Ohanesian further alleges that after meeting with him, Story approached Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), whose leadership battle has spilled into the district primary contest.
"We're strongly suggesting that the Speaker may have struck a financial deal with Marshall Story in exchange for his endorsement of Mr. Epple," said Dina Huniu, Ohanesian's campaign coordinator. "That's why we're asking the D. A. to investigate."
Ohanesian said he is writing both the Los Angeles County district attorney and the state Fair Political Practices Commission to request investigations of Story's actions.
Story and Brown's press secretary vigorously denied the allegations. Epple could not be reached, but his campaign manager, Paul Carpenter, dismissed the charges, saying he was "kind of amused" by Ohanesian's assertions.
Story called Ohanesian's version of their meeting ludicrous. "Unfortunately, he has sour grapes because I didn't endorse him," he said.
Rather than the $17,000 debt Ohanesian cited, Story estimated that his campaign expenses have reached only about $10,000. He said he has taken out a $6,000 personal loan to help cover whatever debt he may have.
Mention of Debt Denied
Story acknowledged meeting with Ohanesian to discuss district issues, but denied mentioning his campaign debt. A mechanic for TWA who competed unsuccessfully in the 1984 Assembly primary, Story said he was backing Epple to avoid further party divisiveness.
The 63rd Assembly District election is a crucial one for both parties. Not only will the outcome affect Republicans' attempts to tip the legislative balance of power their way, but it could also influence power plays within the Democratic party. A group of rebel assemblymen, called the Gang of Five, is laying siege to the party's Assembly leadership, trying to oust Speaker Brown, and both sides are looking to Assembly candidates as potential allies.
Epple is getting help from Brown's supporters and Ohanesian is widely perceived as a Gang of Five candidate in the June 7 primary.
Story, who was backed largely by labor groups and Latinos, said at a Monday press conference that he could not go forward with his campaign because "the money has run out." He said the Epple-Ohanesian fight has attracted the lion's share of contributions in the race, leaving little for him.
"It was impossible to raise the kind of funds I wanted to raise," Story said, explaining that he would have needed $80,000 to $100,000 to wage an aggressive campaign.
Although Story had previously criticized Epple and complained of Sacramento's interference in the primary, Story said he could not back Ohanesian after the Gang of Five last week tried to topple Brown with an Assembly floor vote.
"It's time we have some party unity," Story said.
Susan Jetton, Brown's press secretary, called Ohanesian's charges a "figment of his . . . imagination."
She said Story met with Brown last week to disclose that he was pulling out of the race and endorsing Epple. That was the extent of the conversation, and no mention was made of campaign financing, Jetton said.
"The further Peter falls behind, I suspect the wilder he will swing," Carpenter said, contending that Ohanesian was brandishing charges in an attempt to gain political ground.
A spokeswoman for the FPPC said the reason for any transfer of political funds would not be of concern to the commission. The commission would become involved only if a such a transfer was made without public disclosure, she said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Sowders, the head of the prosecutors' special investigations division, said he had not received a complaint about Story and thus could not comment on Ohanesian's allegations.
Vague Section of Law
The state Election Code does prohibit individuals from paying or soliciting money or "valuable consideration" to get someone to stay out of a political race or withdraw from one. But Sowders said it is a vague section of election law that is rarely prosecuted.