For the past few months, a private detective has been digging into the personal affairs of Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), an increasingly common practice in the world of political campaigns.
Although such political tactics usually remain behind the scenes, the investigation of Gallegly provides a rare glimpse into how campaigns attempt to dredge up embarrassing incidents to hurl at their opponents.
The detective, hired by a pollster working for Gallegly's opponent, said he was asked several months ago to check out some "embarrassing details" of a boating accident in September in Channel Islands Harbor and to look into other rumors.
So far, the investigation has failed to turn up evidence substantial enough to be raised as an issue by Republican challenger Sang Korman before the June 5 primary in the 21st District, which spreads from the conservative suburbs of northern and western Los Angeles County to southern and eastern Ventura County, said Korman's campaign manager, A. Robert Lavoie.
Gallegly said he is concerned that the opposition might have twisted the truth about an innocent boating accident, but he added that he sees nothing wrong with Korman's campaign snooping into his private life. Indeed, Gallegly's campaign has done background checks on Korman and on other opponents.
"If it is legitimate, and you did something wrong, that's fine," Gallegly said. "You should be able to stand up and face the music. But if someone tries to twist something, or have someone out and out lie, that's wrong."
Known in political circles as "opposition research," the practice usually consists of scrutinizing voting records, campaign financial documents and other official statements. But more and more, campaigns poke into the private lives of opponents looking for scandal, sometimes with professional help.
"It's a seasonal thing," said Nicholas Beltrante, who runs an investigation firm in Washington. "As we get closer to the election, we get as many as a dozen cases going on at one time."
The trend not only reflects a shift in attitudes about what is fair game in the political arena, it is also a measure of the political difficulty of unseating an incumbent.
"When you are a challenger, you hope for every opportunity that comes along," Lavoie said. "Face it, the only people who have been removed from office were removed because of malfeasance or a scandal of some sort."
Indeed, 98% of incumbents won reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1988. It takes a great deal for an outsider to overcome the incumbent's advantage of name identification and ability to raise political contributions and send out taxpayer-financed mass mailings to constituents.
In his two terms in Congress, Gallegly has used these advantages to seize hold of his safely Republican district. He easily trounced Korman in the GOP primary two years ago, as well as a Democrat in the general election. Political analysts expect a repeat performance, barring any unforeseen campaign bombshell.
Lavoie said the Korman campaign has not had to search for material billed as explosive. "During the course of a week, we receive a number of calls giving us supposed inside information," he said. "Most of them are a little strange, and we dismiss them."
But a rumor about the boating accident kept resurfacing, Lavoie said. "The nature of the boating accident had to do with the congressman having left the scene . . . and left people in a precarious position," he said. Other related rumors, he said, "had to do with what kind of condition the congressman was in."
Initially, Lavoie asked Robert Danford, an investigator in Los Angeles, to look into the incident and conduct other opposition research. Danford refused the job and told Gallegly's campaign about the offer.
Danford refused to comment on the matter. But Ben Key, a consultant for Gallegly's campaign, said he talked extensively with Danford about what Korman's campaign wanted him to do. "Danford said he was turned off by the way that Korman's people wanted him to get information," Key said.
Key said Korman's campaign wanted Danford to check out other rumors about Gallegly and to conduct 24-hour surveillance of Gallegly in Washington.
Lavoie acknowledged that he asked Danford to investigate the boating accident.
When Danford turned him down, Lavoie said, campaign staff asked Gary Lawrence, an Orange County pollster, to inquire about the incident. "We asked Gary to look into it, check out any reports that were available, conduct any interviews," he said.
Lawrence turned the matter over to Harry F. Block, a Newport Beach private detective, Block said. Through his investigation, Block tracked down the main witnesses to the Sept. 4 boating accident at Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard.