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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Davis Finds New Way to Beat the Bushes for Funds

October 09, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — There's a story hanging around that's just too good not to believe. If it's off the mark, if it's myth, so be it. Go with the myth.

Truth is, in the end, precise details are not essential to this tale anyway.

The story is about Gov. Gray Davis slinking through the bushes--sneaking past a TV camera and a reporter into a private residence to slurp up more money from special interests. You may have read about it in The Times.

It's the bushes that has political people scratching their heads. The slurping of special interest money, that's commonplace, especially for Davis.

But what's a governor doing beating back bushes to evade a TV camera? A governor who seemingly had never seen a camera he couldn't resist? Acting like some suspect being led to a squad car, hiding his face with a smelly T-shirt?

The assumption is Davis--understandably-- was supersensitive about being filmed hitting up special interests for political money during the same week he was acting on hundreds of special-interest bills. This was at the peak of bill signing--just days before the deadline.

Not true, Davis aides say (but not very forcefully). He merely was trespassing across a neighbor's yard and ducking into his host's back door as a security precaution. And those bushes? They actually were bisected by a path and a gate that the governor used.

"It was just silly," says Marcey Brightwell, a reporter for Capitol Television News. "He was in more danger of being hit and scraped by a bush than by some assailant."

*

Brightwell wasn't there that evening, but her cameraman was. So was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. Their mission, indeed, was to record the governor fund-raising at the height of bill signing, an ethically questionable act that previous governors had tried to avoid.

"I don't know anything special about the bill signing period," says Garry South, Davis' chief political strategist. "He signs bills all along, starting in March."

The scene was a handsome home in Sacramento--the residence of Sotiris and Matina Kolokotronis. He's a developer. She's a Davis ally and attorney who helps the Sacramento Kings basketball team deal with foreign players. The main fat cat guest was Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof, whose family reportedly has donated heavily to Davis. Maloof brought along star center Vlade Divac.

All the guests--including the governor's wife, Sharon Davis--used the driveway and front door, many chatting with the reporter and cameraman at curbside. But the governor wasn't showing. An hour went by. It was getting dark. The cameraman called Brightwell, asking whether he should stay.

"All of a sudden," she recalls, "he said, 'Oh, no. There's movement in the bushes. He's coming out of the bushes."'

Mercury News reporter Dion Nissenbaum remembers: "We heard bushes rustling. Suddenly, we looked up in the darkness to see five or six people and the governor's silhouette moving toward the backyard."

Nick Beloberk, Davis' longtime security chief, insists: "We didn't take him through bushes. There was a pathway through a back gate." Why not the normal front entrance? "My call. The TV camera really wasn't the reason." The reason, he explains, was twofold: security and convenience for other arriving guests, whose cars would have been blocked from the driveway while Davis was using it.

But another source casts a different light: As guests were awaiting Davis, the hostess received a phone call. "The governor called from his car and said he was not going to come because of the cameraman and the reporter," the source reports. "He was freaked. Matina routed him through the neighbor's yard."

*

Whatever the facts, Marcey Brightwell speaks the truth when she says the governor was acting silly.

Silly, among other reasons, because Davis tries to keep his fund-raising secret. Previous governors usually didn't put money-grubbing on their public calendars, but aides would disclose the events if asked. By law, donations must be reported at least twice a year anyway. Why not be open about it on a timely basis? Privacy doesn't apply here. This is the public's business--part of the political system it has authorized.

Silly, because a governor who's a champion fund-raiser--who solicited a record $21 million during his first 18 months in office--really should give it a rest during the bill-signing crunch. People could get the wrong idea.

And silly, because if Davis insists on tapping wallets anyway, he should walk in the front door with his head high. The governor of California should not be hiding behind bushes. It's clearly no place to bury a news story.

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