The FBI sting in Sacramento, a bipartisan embarrassment that has been so far remarkably absent from local campaigns, took the spotlight Thursday in the bitter 72nd Assembly District contest.
With less than two weeks remaining in the campaign, Republican Curt Pringle was the first into the mailboxes with a campaign piece sent to 80,000 voter households linking his Democratic opponent, Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach, to the investigation of political corruption under way in the Capitol. Thierbach is expected to strike back immediately, possibly by this weekend.
The sting was an FBI operation that led to an Aug. 24 nighttime raid on the offices of four legislators: Assembly Minority Leader Pat Nolan (R-Glendale), Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier), Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles) and state Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier).
Pringle alleged in his mailer that Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), whose supporters have lent Thierbach financial and other assistance in his campaign, is an "FBI target suspect" who is "caught up in the sting." "And Willie Brown is Thierbach's best political friend," said the mailer, which began arriving at voters' homes Thursday.
FBI investigators reportedly had trained their investigation on Brown initially, but when nothing turned up implicating him in any wrongdoing, their attention was diverted to the other legislators. Brown's office was not raided by the FBI, nor did the agency name him as a subject of the federal grand jury investigation stemming from the FBI probe, which is focusing on Nolan, Hill, Moore and Montoya.
Pringle's campaign consultants, Gary Huckaby and Carlos Rodriguez of Sacramento, said they stood behind the charges against Brown outlined in the mailer.
"Willie Brown is still . . . very much under scrutiny" by the FBI, Rodriguez said. Asked how he knew that, he replied, "From our sources."
In any case, the two consultants said, Democrats in other parts of the state are sending out similar pieces linking other Republican legislative candidates to the sting. "They're doing exactly the same thing," Huckaby said.
Assemblyman Richard D. Katz (D-Sepulveda), a Brown ally who is assisting the Thierbach campaign, said he had no quarrel with the tactic of linking Thierbach to Brown. But, he said, the mailer is based on "a lie . . . Willie Brown is not under investigation, not stung, not being investigated by a federal grand jury."
"We're a little stunned," Katz said. "I have never seen a piece as sleazy as this in 20 years of being involved in politics. Without a doubt, it takes sleaze to a new level of low."
Before Pringle's mailer hit, Thierbach's campaign already had its own mailer in the works linking Pringle to Nolan and Hill, the two Republican targets of the investigation. Hill has loaned Pringle $10,000 for his campaign and Nolan, as minority leader, is instrumental in planning campaigns for all GOP Assembly candidates.
Katz accused Pringle of "trying to deflect attention from the fact that his cronies, Nolan and Hill, are the guys who the FBI raided. They're under investigation for political corruption. I guess Pringle thought that by trying to smear someone else, people wouldn't find out the truth. . . . "