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THE STATE

Simon a Major Customer of COPS Group

Campaign: He's paid $444,000 to its political consulting arms. The group made a false fund-raising allegation against Davis, which Simon repeated.

October 10, 2002|MICHAEL FINNEGAN and DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The gubernatorial campaign of Bill Simon Jr. has paid at least $444,000 to organizations closely tied to the group that falsely accused Gov. Gray Davis of illegal fund-raising, state records show.

The payments--a relatively large sum for a campaign barely able to sustain television advertising--reflect the high value that Simon has placed on support of the group COPS, the California Organization of Police and Sheriffs.

The payments also illustrate the lucrative consulting business that is an integral part of the COPS political operation.

Simon is the latest in a long line of politicians to trumpet a COPS endorsement, making use of the acronym to appear tough on crime.

But the political fiasco that Simon stepped into by repeating COPS' allegation against Davis has raised new questions about a group already dogged by controversy.

COPS is a relatively small organization of public safety officers, but has gained outsized clout in California politics. A mainstay of its operation is an offshoot that collects money from candidates in return for featuring their names and photographs in mailings to voters. The practice has led to accusations that the group's endorsement is for sale.

"They're mercenaries," said Dan Schnur, who was Gov. Pete Wilson's spokesman in 1994 when COPS broke with other law enforcement groups and endorsed Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown over Wilson, who had made his name as a tough-on-crime Republican.

Kelley M. Moran, COPS' political affairs director, denied that the group sells endorsements. The group interviews candidates about their stands on law enforcement before offering its support, he said. Those who win endorsements, he said, are offered the chance to buy a spot on COPS' mailings to voters.

"We're looking for people who support local law enforcement and public safety," Moran said.

The group endorses both Republicans and Democrats. It endorsed Davis for years as he campaigned for a succession for state offices--most recently in the March Democratic gubernatorial primary--before breaking with the incumbent. Davis campaign strategists said the breach occurred after they refused to pay for a spot on the group's mailer to voters.

The group then turned to Simon, but his entanglement with COPS has led to a major embarrassment for the Republican nominee.

On Monday, COPS called on the state Fair Political Practices Commission to investigate its charge that Davis accepted a $10,000 campaign donation in his state Capitol office in 1998 when he was lieutenant governor. That would have constituted a misdemeanor.

On Tuesday, the group held a news conference where it released two photographs purporting to show Davis accepting the check in his Capitol office.

But on Wednesday, COPS released a statement saying: "It now appears that our original belief was erroneous." COPS withdrew its request for an investigation, but it did not apologize to Davis.

"We regret the impact this erroneous information has had on the Simon campaign and on the distraction of their message to the voters of California," the statement said. "We also apologize for questioning the character of our former executive director."

The former executive director, Al Angele, was shown handing Davis the check in the photograph, apparently taken at a private home in Santa Monica. Since Monday, Angele had angrily denied the allegation that he was party to a crime.

Before this week, Simon had treated the COPS endorsement as a major coup. He toured the state with COPS leaders in June when the group announced its endorsement. COPS is one of the few law enforcement groups that has endorsed Simon. Davis, a pro-death penalty Democrat, has snagged the vast majority.

Simon's ties to COPS are spread among three groups which have one thing in common: Moran. The first, COPS, is the nonprofit advocacy group that endorsed Simon; Moran is its political director. The second is COPS Voter Guide, owned by Moran. The third is Moran & Associates, his consulting firm.

Over the next few weeks, COPS Voter Guide plans to feature Simon as the prominent candidate in a mailing to a million California households. To get that billing--and a similar display on a mailing during the GOP primary--Simon's campaign has paid $300,000 to COPS Voter Guide, according to finance reports filed with the secretary of state.

The Simon campaign has also made $144,952 in payments for consulting and other services to Moran & Associates. Jeff Flint, a senior Simon advisor, said the payments were for Moran's firm "to advise the campaign on obtaining additional law enforcement endorsements" and to set up a program to urge public safety officers to vote for Simon.

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