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Pringle's Staff Drove Decoy Scheme, Grand Jury Told

Election: Ex-candidate Campbell says GOP donors informed O.C. legislator's office of fears of Democratic win.

March 28, 1996|PETER M. WARREN and DEXTER FILKINS and MICHAEL G. WAGNER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA ANA — Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle's office drove the scheme to draft a bogus Democratic candidate into a critical special election that gave Republicans control of the lower house last fall, according to sworn testimony made public Wednesday.

Laurie Campbell, the Huntington Beach woman who entered the race to dilute Democratic votes, told the Orange County Grand Jury that the office of Pringle, who was not yet speaker at the time, set the plan in motion after Republican "money backers" grew concerned that a Democrat might win.

Pringle's office orchestrated the scheme to draft Campbell to siphon votes from the main opponent of Scott R. Baugh, the Republican leadership's candidate, she said. She testified that the plan was carried out with the help of young aides to Pringle and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach).

"They got pushed by Pringle's people to do it," Campbell testified under oath. "I don't know who it was, but whoever holds the money, some big campaign donators, made some calls. . . . And those people called Pringle's office. . . . And [Pringle's office] said, 'You better get it done.' "

One of the big donors she identified was Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., heir to a Los Angeles banking fortune who lives in Orange County and who contributes heavily to conservative Christian candidates. Ahmanson gave $40,000 to Baugh's campaign.

Campbell said that much of what she knows about the GOP plan was revealed to her by Baugh, who she said took her into his confidence after the election.

Campbell's testimony about the involvement of Pringle's office in the scheme was amplified by Richard Martin, a Baugh aide who has pleaded guilty to election law violations for fraudulently promoting Campbell's candidacy.

Martin told grand jurors that Pringle wanted to have another Democrat in the race to divide the opposition. Martin said he got the impression from a "conversation with Curt Pringle a month prior [to the filing deadline], I believe, indicating that if there were more than three Republicans on the ballot, we would need at least two Democrats there."

Pringle spokesman Gary Foster said it was difficult to comment on transcripts not in his office's possession, "but if this is trying to insinuate that Speaker Pringle knew anything about the recruitment of Laurie Campbell beforehand, it is incorrect, which he has stated many times in the past."

"Many people were talking about the makeup of the ballot," he said, "so there is speculation about that, but as far as specific recruitment of a specific candidate, Speaker Pringle knew nothing about that."

In a recent radio interview, Baugh said, "I have no personal knowledge of Mr. Pringle's alleged involvement in this action at all."

Martin testified that the pressure to recruit a decoy was so intense that he felt blackmailed by Rhonda J. Carmony, Rohrabacher's campaign manager.

"It was explained to me that, due to problems in the past I had with legislators and their staff, that if I were not to do this, it would reflect poorly both on me and on Scott [Baugh]," Martin said.

Campbell and Martin were among 31 witnesses who testified in recent weeks before a grand jury investigating the alleged scheme to manipulate the outcome of November's crucial 67th Assembly District race. The testimony lays out in great detail the active interest that some of the GOP's most powerful leaders reportedly took in the candidacy of a decoy Democrat.

Campbell was thrown off the special election ballot by a judge, but Baugh went on to win the election without her help. His victory enabled the Republicans to seize decisive control of the Assembly and elect Pringle as speaker.

Last week, the grand jury indicted Baugh on four felony counts for allegedly concealing campaign contributions and loans and persuading his campaign treasurer to lie under oath about the source of some campaign funds. Baugh also was charged with 18 misdemeanor violations of the state's election laws. Two other GOP aides, including Carmony and Baugh's chief of staff, were indicted on felony charges.

Three GOP operatives, including a former Pringle aide, have pleaded guilty to their roles in the plot.

Baugh has declared his innocence and denounced the investigation as a political witch hunt. On Tuesday, he won the GOP nomination for the 67th District with the help of absentee ballots cast before his indictment became public.

Ahmanson did not return phone messages left at his office Wednesday. He is a major donor to the California Independent Business PAC, a tiny, powerful group of major GOP contributors.

Prosecutors told the grand jurors that much of the responsibility for the Campbell episode may rest with this group and its predecessor, the Allied Business PAC.

The "business PACs may well have been the source of all this," Supervising Dist. Atty. Guy Ormes told the grand jurors, adding that Baugh received substantial support from the group.

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