Block said he found one witness who was willing to accuse Gallegly of being drunk and leaving the scene of the accident, if he was paid $3,000. The detective repeatedly contacted The Times in an attempt to persuade the newspaper to publish a story about the incident.
The witness' allegations, Gallegly said, are "totally untrue." The congressman said the claims are particularly infuriating because he was acting as a good Samaritan when the accident occurred.
Gallegly was returning from Catalina in his 33-foot boat on Labor Day when the occupants of a disabled 18-foot speedboat asked him for a tow back to Channel Islands Harbor, he said.
The congressman said he had managed to maneuver the smaller boat into the harbor and to a launch ramp without incident. But at the last minute, the wind blew his larger boat into the smaller one, puncturing it with a sizable hole. The wind continued to push his boat onto the rocks, knocking out one of its two engines, he said.
Once free of the rocks, Gallegly said, he had to leave to avoid further damage. He said he motored across the harbor to his boat slip and then reported the accident immediately. He said he left the speedboat safely in shallow water at the launch ramp. Gallegly's insurance paid $4,900 to cover damage to the speedboat.
The Harbor Patrol and other witnesses, in reports and interviews, backed up the congressman's version of events.
"To me, I saw no probable cause to suspect that he was under the influence," said Harbor Patrol Sgt. Don Molony, who handled Gallegly's accident. "Basically, it was windy, and it was explained to me that they needed to dock the boat. And he, on his own volition, was reporting the incident to the Coast Guard. So I assumed it wasn't a hit-and-run."
Gallegly said he believes it is appropriate for political opponents to scour the public record for ammunition to use against each other. But he draws the line, he said, "at having someone hiding in the bushes--that kind of approach."
Korman said he believes background checks are a legitimate campaign tool. "That kind of research is reasonable," he said.
Although he said he never intended to hire a private investigator, he acknowledged that he asked his campaign staff to check out the rumors about the boating accident involving Gallegly. He said he told his staff, "maybe we can hire someone to find out what kind of person he is, what kind of friends he has, what kind of political background he has."
Two years ago, the Gallegly campaign did a background check on Korman when the Korean-American first challenged the incumbent in the 1988 Republican primary, Key said. "We wanted to check out who is Sang Korman," he said. "What we found was of no consequence."
Other than routine checks of public records, the Gallegly campaign has not mounted another investigation of Korman, said John Frith, Gallegly's spokesman.
The probe into Korman's affairs was not the first by a Gallegly campaign. In 1986, his campaign hired a researcher to check out Tony Hope, son of entertainer Bob Hope, Key said.
Throughout that campaign, Hope was considered the front-runner in the race for the vacant seat left by former Republican Rep. Bobbi Fiedler. But Gallegly won an upset victory after labeling Hope a "carpetbagger" who was not living within the boundaries of the congressional district and after pointing out that Hope had not voted in several elections.
The practice of attempting to dredge up embarrassing details about a candidate's private life is widespread.
A political operative who once worked for Gallegly was caught plying his trade in Texas earlier this year. Former Gallegly aide Gary Maloney became the center of a controversy over his research into a Texas GOP gubernatorial candidate in January.
According to the candidate's complaint, Maloney asked the ex-wife of one of the candidate's employees "several inappropriate questions," including whether the candidate drinks or uses foul language and how he treats his employees and conducts his personal and business affairs.
Shortly after the complaint hit the newspapers, Maloney was promoted to director of strategy of the National Republican Congressional Committee. His committee helps finance House campaigns across the country.
Gary Koops, a spokesman for the Republican committee, said there is no committee policy forbidding research into private affairs or banning the employment of private investigators. But he said the committee believes that "suitable issues" can be found in the public record.
His Democratic counterpart takes a firmer position.
"There is a difference between hiring someone to do research and hiring a private detective to snoop around in people's lives," said Howard Schloss, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It is an extreme that doesn't have a place in the election process."
Schloss said he wouldn't be surprised if some Democratic candidates have hired investigators, but he is not aware of any examples. "We don't condone it," he said.