Harriett M. Wieder's campaign press secretary impersonated a reporter at a campaign event last week in a successful effort to gather information about a threatened recall movement against the Orange County supervisor.
Wieder, who is running for the Republican slot in the 42nd Congressional District race, said that she did not condone the misrepresentation, which she described as "wrong" and "very dumb."
Falsely claiming to be a reporter for Los Angeles news radio station KFWB, Wieder's press secretary, Drew Simpson, joined in as a Times reporter was interviewing recall proponent Douglas Langevin outside a candidates' forum in Huntington Beach.
"I wanted to get at his motives for the recall," Simpson said in an interview later. "I don't think he would have talked to me as openly as he did if I had said I was Harriett's press secretary."
Langevin told the interviewers that he intended to serve the recall notice as soon as possible, but not at the forum because he did not want its sponsors--Huntington Beach Tomorrow, a slow-growth group--tied to the recall effort. He also handed the interviewers, including Simpson, copies of the recall notice to be served on Wieder.
Apprised of his comments, Wieder took the offensive and during the forum challenged Langevin to serve her with the recall notice. "So, Doug Langevin, what's taking so long? Serve me right now. Come on," she said.
When the forum ended, Langevin saw Simpson and Wieder together and discovered Simpson's true identity. Langevin angrily accused Simpson of lying in order to gain an interview.
"I'm irate at it being misrepresented that I was having an interview with KFWB when in fact I wasn't and you are actually Harriett Wieder's press secretary," Langevin said. "Don't you think that is somewhat of a dirty trick?"
At first Simpson denied he had done anything wrong. "I did not lie. I told the man I was from KFWB." But later, under questioning from reporters, he admitted that he has no connection with the radio station and apologized. "That was my frat trick," said Simpson, 44, who is on vacation from his job as public information officer for Coastline Community College in Fountain Valley.
He said he wanted to learn about the motives of the recall proponents, who have threatened to challenge Wieder for supporting large-scale development projects despite the presence of Measure A, a slow-growth initiative, on the June 7 primary ballot in Orange County.
"I did not want Harriett to be embarrassed by being ambushed," Simpson said.
The incident was the latest in a series of campaign problems that have raised character and integrity questions as Wieder campaigns for the Republican nomination in the 42nd Congressional District.
Wieder recently admitted that she has lied for 25 years about having graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit with a degree in journalism when in fact she never attended college.
Wieder, 67, said at the time that she was ashamed that she was never able to go to college because of her family finances.
It was also disclosed that Wieder, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, had lied about the degree not just on her resume, but under oath in a deposition taken in a civil suit against the county last October.
The actions of Simpson, whom she described as her "volunteer press secretary," in impersonating a reporter gave new ammunition for her three major Republican rivals in the race to replace Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach), who is giving up the seat to pursue the state treasurer's post. The 42nd District stretches from northwest Orange County across Long Beach to Torrance and the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Wieder and other campaign aides moved quickly to distance themselves from Simpson's actions in an effort to minimize further damage to the congressional campaign.
"It was very dumb," Wieder said. "The campaign doesn't need it. I don't need it."
But she said she did not remove Simpson from the campaign. "I can't fire him," she said, "because he's a volunteer."
Having to defend herself or her campaign's actions for the third time this month, Wieder said, "The message is loud and clear--you accomplish nothing by lying."
Three of Wieder's rivals in the bitterly contested primary race pounced on the press aide's actions.
Former White House aide Andrew Littlefair of Torrance said the impersonation of a reporter is "another example of the way they operate. I think they operate over the edge in terms of deceit and half-truths."
Candidate Stephen Horn, former president of Cal State Long Beach, said he was disturbed by the "pattern and practice of deceitful behavior" in the Wieder campaign.
And former presidential speech writer Dana Rohrabacher of Palos Verdes Estates said that obtaining information in a fraudulent manner "obviously reflects an attitude that flows from the top to the bottom of her campaign. They sort of take liberties with the truth."
Simpson's actions also sparked criticism from officials at KFWB, where he had worked as a part-time news editor during 1984 and 1985.
Bill Yeager, executive news editor at the radio station, confirmed that Simpson was "a part-time editor for a period of time" but has had no relationship with the station for at least two years.
"I think what he did was wrong," Yeager said, adding that the station's legal department had been asked to look into the situation. "I am sending him a letter denouncing his act," Yeager said. "An apology is in order."