SACRAMENTO — First he was. Then he wasn't. Then he was again.
Early Wednesday, Gov. Gray Davis said that the appointment of former California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown to a powerful position on a state pension fund had been a "terrible" mistake. By day's end, however, Davis had decided it was a good idea after all.
Davis telephoned Brown, the longtime kingpin of the California Legislature who is now San Francisco's mayor, late Wednesday afternoon to formally offer him a position on the board of the nearly $170-billion state workers' pension fund. Brown accepted.
But the on-again, off-again, on-again appointment of Brown, who has been subpoenaed in a San Francisco federal grand jury corruption probe, played through the day like a comic opera in the state capital.
It began with an apology and a denial by Davis spokesman Michael Bustamante, who blamed an unnamed staff member for mistakenly sending a Jan. 20 letter to Brown inviting him to join the governing board of the California Public Employees' Retirement System.
The letter, according to Bustamante, was signed by "auto-pen," a device used to reproduce signatures.
An angry Brown responded by faxing copies of the letter to the media as proof that Davis had in fact appointed him to the board.
Republican Secretary of State Bill Jones weighed in next. Because Brown had taken an oath of office, the appointment was official. For Davis to withdraw the appointment, Jones said, he would have to fire Brown.
Then the governor did an about-face. Willie Brown, according to Bustamante, had been appointed to the CalPERS board after all, after a meeting between the two heavyweight politicians in San Francisco on Wednesday and a subsequent phone chat.
"Today was the first chance for the governor and the mayor to talk personally," Bustamante said. "The governor is confident that Mayor Brown will fairly reflect the governor's views on the CalPERS board."
Despite newspaper reports of the pending appointment and a letter from Brown accepting the position, Davis had never sought to clarify his earlier contention that he had not appointed Brown to the board.
Bustamante described the snafu Wednesday morning as "a very terrible thing" and said Davis planned to apologize to Brown.
"This administration does things well," Bustamante said. "When we make a mistake, we make a good one."
Brown was not at Wednesday's monthly meeting of the CalPERS board in Sacramento.
"This appointment was neither sought or solicited by Mayor Brown," said Brown spokeswoman Kandace Bender. "It came as a very pleasant surprise, and beyond that we find this rather perplexing."
Brown received the Davis letter--addressed "Dear Willie" and signed "Best regards, Gray"--on Jan. 24 and received an executive appointment document the following day that was signed by both Davis and Jones, according to Bender.
Bender said Brown sent Davis an acceptance letter dated Jan. 31. In the letter, Brown thanked Davis for the opportunity and vowed to "work hard and do a good job."
A week later, Brown sent his notarized oath of office to Jones, whose staff filed the documents Feb. 9.
A spokesman for Jones said Wednesday that Jones had also received appointment papers from Davis' office and, after verifying the governor's signature on the papers, returned them to Davis.
"From our standpoint he's got an appointment," said Jones' spokeswoman, Beth Miller.
Davis spokesman Bustamante said he was unaware of Jones' interpretation that the appointment was official and of the existence of Brown's acceptance letter. He also brushed aside suggestions that the governor changed his mind about appointing Brown because of an ongoing federal probe of San Francisco's minority contracting program and Brown's dealings with targets of the probe.
Bustamante said Davis was unaware of the investigation, which has filled Bay Area newspapers. He added that the governor has been busy campaigning for Vice President Al Gore and had not had time to focus on the CalPERS situation.
Wednesday's debacle is not the first time that an automatic pen has been implicated in a political snafu. Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, for example, once contended that his auto-pen was used to approve a children's health plan he didn't endorse after Republican lawmakers raised strong objections to a provision in the plan.
Not everyone was buying Davis' auto-pen defense Wednesday. State Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, a close friend of Brown's and one of the first people to learn of the appointment, said the series of events "defied description."
"When's the last time that a low-level person did that in a governor's office with an appointment," Burton said. "What did they do, get Charlie Brown and send it to Willie Brown?"
Times staff writer Virginia Ellis contributed to this report.