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Bid to Probe Tobacco Petitions Denied : Courts: Judge rules that checking for deception, as charged by acting Secretary of State Tony Miller, would be an unwarranted intrusion into the initiative process.


SACRAMENTO — A Superior Court judge refused Friday to allow acting Secretary of State Tony Miller to question signers of a tobacco company-sponsored smoking initiative to see if they were duped, as Miller contends.

Judge John R. Lewis concluded that Miller's request to check for deliberate deception by petition circulators is "an unwarranted intrusion into the initiative process."

If, as Miller charges, there is evidence of fraud, the complaints can be turned over to local prosecutors or the attorney general, said Lewis, who found no legal authority to grant Miller's request.

Miller alleged that a Philip Morris-financed committee, Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions, intentionally deceived petition signers by telling them the measure would strengthen smoking restrictions. Actually, Miller said, its chief purpose is to abolish existing local smoking bans.

Following the judge's ruling, Miller said he would not file an appeal because he must decide by June 30 whether the petition has received the 423,473 valid signatures needed for it to qualify for the November ballot.

Millers said he will, however, call for "truth in sponsorship" legislation to ensure that citizens know who is behind any petition they are asked to sign. Currently, state law requires identification of the chief sponsors of initiatives to be identified on mass mailings and in official reports, but not on the petitions.

Miller also said he would refer numerous complaints of deception he has received to local district attorneys in the various counties, but Miller said he did not expect prosecutions. "The D.A.s have other priorities," he said. "They're busy prosecuting violent crime."

Supporters of the initiative have said Miller raised the issue to promote his candidacy for secretary of state. On Tuesday, Miller won the Democratic nomination for the post and will face Republican Assemblyman Bill Jones of Fresno in November.

The chief legal issue before the court was whether Miller should be given access to names randomly chosen from the 607,000 signatures gathered by the initiative committee.

Since 1972, when signers of an initiative to legalize marijuana charged that they were harassed by police, state law has protected the confidentiality of names on petitions. County election officials have access to the names to check the validity of the signatures, but other officials must apply to the court to see them.

John Mueller, an attorney representing the initiative committee, told the judge that "the express purpose of this statute was to protect people's right to privacy." To grant access to the names in this case "would set an extremely dangerous precedent" he said, and would have a chilling effect on the rights of those wishing to circulate or sign initiative petitions.

But Pamela S. Giarrizzo, staff attorney for the secretary of state's office, argued: "We don't believe there would be a chilling effect on signers of petitions. We do think it will have a chilling effect on crooked circulators."

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