Geffen's trio of lobbyists called or visited most of the 12 commissioners. One asked Burton and Hertzberg if they could do something to help, since the two legislators are responsible for appointing two-thirds of the commissioners.
DreamWorks executive Spahn raised the issued directly with Davis, who appoints a third of the Coastal Commission, at the studio's post-Academy Awards party at Spago Beverly Hills.
Spahn said he complained that Geffen was being treated unfairly by the same state agency that had years earlier approved protective sea walls for Geffen's main house.
When Spahn mentioned the Malibu planning matter, the governor responded: "Another one?" Spahn remembered.
The governor recalled that he had just heard complaints on behalf of three other Malibu permit applicants, Spahn said. Billionaire Eli Broad, television magnate Haim Saban and Nancy Daly Riordan, wife of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, were wrangling with the Coastal Commission for permission to build expansive homes on the same stretch of beach where Geffen lives, just down the coast from the Malibu Pier.
"There was a buzz in the Capitol and other places about this [Geffen] issue," recalled Coastal Commissioner John Woolley. "Some commissioners had been talked to about this already and supposedly said they were in support even before the hearing."
When the matter finally came before the commission at its May meeting in Santa Rosa, sea wall opponents said Geffen's clout was much in evidence.
Davis had approved the appointment of an alternate commissioner, Tom Soto, in time for the meeting. Soto filled in for another vacationing commissioner and voted for Geffen's sea wall.
Opponents found intrigue in the fact that Soto only showed up for the day of the Geffen vote. He has not attended any of the commission's meetings since.
Furthermore, at the end of a two-hour debate on the Geffen case, Davis' top environmental official urged a vote in favor of Geffen's wall. Some Coastal Commission members and staff said they could not recall state resources director Mary Nichols, or any of her predecessors, ever addressing such a mundane item on behalf of one applicant.
Soto acknowledges that when he was appointed--four days before the meeting--there was concern that he was needed to secure a quorum. "They needed a quorum to move some items," Soto said, although plenty of members ended up attending.
Soto said, however, that he did not attend the meeting to help Geffen. He said he missed subsequent sessions because of other commitments and because he believed the commission would have a quorum without him.
For her part, Nichols said at the meeting that she spoke in her role as a nonvoting member of the commission because she believed that Geffen's application was unfairly being singled out for scrutiny.
Rather than helping him, Geffen's fame made him the target of Coastal Commission staffers who seemed intent on using a high-profile case to register their opposition to sea walls, Nichols said this week.
"My only point in speaking out [for the Geffen wall] was that this was being blown by the staff into a big precedential issue," she said. "It wasn't. It should have been viewed as an individual application on the merits of the case."
In the end, the commission voted 7 to 3 to allow construction of the wall. All four of Davis' appointees voted for the wall, joined by three of the legislators' appointees.
Parties on both sides of the debate agreed that it would be better in the future if local officials handled such matters. The Burton-Hertzberg bill would accomplish that goal, by singling Malibu out among the host of jurisdictions that lack coastal plans.
Times staff writer Jenifer Warren contributed to this report from Sacramento.