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Lawsuit Over Mailer Thrown Out

December 04, 1998|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A judge threw out a defamation lawsuit Thursday by former Assemblyman Richard Katz, which alleged that state Sen. Richard G. Polanco smeared him with an untruthful campaign mailer that cost Katz a close election.

Katz--who lost a bitterly fought 20th Senate District primary to Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon by just 29 votes in June--immediately vowed to appeal, maintaining that the mailer was simply too dirty to let pass.

"We expected all along that if we're going to be successful in breaking new ground, it was going to be at the appeal level," Katz said. "This is only the beginning."

Polanco aide Bill Mabie said the lawmaker hoped Katz would let the election go, citing the mounting legal fees both sides are incurring, but knew the feud was unlikely to end with the lower court ruling.

"Sen. Polanco would like to move on and do the people's business, but that doesn't seem to be what Katz wants," Mabie said. "He's trying to say there is a reason he lost, and that is not panning out. . . . It's always someone else's fault."

The narrow defeat of Katz, a former Democratic Assembly leader who represented the San Fernando Valley for 16 years, was seen by many political observers as a harbinger of shifting political fortunes because of the burgeoning Latino vote. Katz saw the defeat as a sign of burgeoning gutter-level politics.

Written by Alarcon consultant Richie Ross and funded by Polanco (D-Los Angeles), the mailer falsely linked Katz to a 1988 incident in Orange County in which Republican candidates posted guards at polling places to intimidate Latinos. In fact, Katz had led a lawsuit against the Republicans involved.

Under pressure from the Anti-Defamation League and Democrats, Ross and Polanco apologized for the hit piece after the election, admitting that it falsely implied Katz's involvement.

In his motion to strike the suit, noted election law attorney Frederic D. Woocher cited numerous cases defending the freedom of unfettered political discourse--including a case stemming from a San Fernando Valley congressional race.

That case, a suit by GOP candidate Rich Sybert against former U.S. Rep Anthony Beilenson, accused Beilenson of sullying Sybert's reputation in a mailer that slammed Sybert for moonlighting as an attorney while working as an aide to Gov. Pete Wilson.

Sybert, who made $140,000 through his extra lawyering, contended that ethics officials had approved the work. But the 2nd District Court of Appeal was not swayed.

"Hyperbole, distortion, invective and tirades are as much a part of American politics as kissing babies and distributing bumper stickers," according to the 1996 opinion.

Katz's defamation suit was not the first legal volley he fired after his loss. He filed a suit challenging the validity of the election, which he later withdrew. He also demanded a recount.

Alarcon, whose last day as a city council member is today, could not be reached for comment.

Ross, who said he has spent more than $30,000 defending himself already, hopes the case does not drag out much longer.

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