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Campaign Smear Victims Left With Little Protection

Law: Ruling restoring the right to send anonymous hit mail hobbles a candidate falsely accused of molestation.

April 08, 1999|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Danger! Danger! Danger! We run the risk of having a child molester on the City Council. Don't vote for Joe Ruiz "The Molester."

--From an anonymous political flier

*

Joe Ruiz wants everyone to know that he is innocent.

He was never charged with molesting four boys in his backyard pool and he has the police testimonials to prove it. He doesn't even own a pool.

Ruiz has been trying to convince people that he is an upstanding, law-abiding man, ever since he was accused of molesting the boys in an anonymous campaign mailer sent out during his recent campaign for South Gate City Council.

A longtime business owner and youth football coach, Ruiz said the accusation--contained in what looked like an article from a fictitious local newspaper--cost him the election and inflicted terrible pain on his family.

"Someone has to be held accountable," he said angrily.

But a court ruling this year makes it harder for Ruiz to identify the people who slimed him, and it may encourage more anonymous attacks in future campaigns.

The 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana struck down a state law that requires candidates and committees to identify themselves in the campaign material they distribute.

The court ruled that the law--passed in 1974 in response to a series of libelous anonymous hit pieces--violates the constitutional right to speak and write without fear of retribution.

The flier's accusation against Ruiz was the most vicious charge in what many call the dirtiest political campaign in the history of South Gate, a mostly Latino community of about 87,000 residents in southeast Los Angeles County.

Several of the other 14 candidates vying for three seats on the council say they were also the victims of anonymous charges.

Scholars say campaigns in working-class Latino communities have become more contentious because a growing wave of Latino activism has spawned a new generation of candidates competing for a relatively small number of positions.

'I Was Totally Devastated'

The anti-Ruiz mailer hit four days before the March 2 election. One of Ruiz's supporters found the piece in her mailbox and showed it to him.

"I just couldn't believe it," he said. "I was totally devastated."

The mailer screamed, "Danger! Danger!" and then included what appeared to be a reprint of an article from something called the South Gate Press. The story said Ruiz was charged with molesting four boys, ages 13 and 14, during a swim party in his backyard pool. It said he touched the boys on the buttocks and genitals.

The article said Ruiz faced 27 years in prison if convicted. It also took a shot at Ruiz's political ally, Mayor Henry Gonzalez, charging that he bailed Ruiz out and was "keeping this story a secret."

Another mailer sent out by a group called Citizens for Honest Government accused Gonzalez of cutting back-room deals with trash companies and taking kickbacks from car dealerships. The address given for the organization, however, does not exist and the group is not registered with the California secretary of state, as required for political committees.

Ruiz tried frantically to clear his name before the election. He obtained a letter from South Gate Police Chief George Troxcil confirming that the candidate had not been charged with or arrested for any crime. Ruiz also sent his fingerprints to the California attorney general's office so they could be checked against the state's computer records. Again, Ruiz was cleared.

He tried to distribute Troxcil's letter before the election, but the damage had been done.

When Ruiz ran for City Council two years earlier, he received 1,138 votes. This year he got 809, coming in ninth in a field of 15.

Gonzalez was barely reelected, by a 33-vote margin.

Even if Ruiz finds his villain, the state Fair Political Practices Commission may not be able to take action. In January, the appeals court invalidated the law that had allowed the agency to fine campaigns that distributed anonymous hit pieces. The commission is appealing the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Although nasty anonymous fliers are nothing new to local politics, watchdog groups and legal experts predict that the ruling will encourage more outrageous smears.

"Political campaigns are known for doing whatever they are legally allowed to do," said Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause.

The appeals court ruling sought to balance the 1st Amendment right to speak and write anonymously with the state's interest in a well-informed electorate. But FPPC officials fear that the court tipped the scales too far in favor of protecting speech.

"With this decision, there are going to be a certain number of libelous, barbaric hit pieces," said Steve Churchwell, the agency's general counsel.

The court made its ruling in the case of Daniel Griset, a former Santa Ana city councilman who was fined $10,000 by the FPPC for five anonymous mass mailings criticizing his opponents that he sent out in his 1988 reelection campaign.

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