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Pacific Lumber Aids Effort to Recall D.A.

Man who sued the timber firm will face an ouster vote in March

November 07, 2003|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

After an upstart district attorney charged Pacific Lumber Co. with fraud early this year, the Northern California timber giant was not content to just fight it out in the courts.

When a local campaign to recall Humboldt County Dist. Atty. Paul V. Gallegos began to flag last month, Scotia-based Pacific Lumber came to the rescue, providing an infusion of cash, sending out thousands of pro-recall mailers, granting employees paid leave to work on the campaign and paying professional circulators as much as $8 for every signature they could add to the recall petition.

At that point, the campaign organizers had less than a month to garner enough signatures to make the recall effort qualify for the March 2004 ballot.

It appears the company's efforts have paid off. On Thursday, the county elections office ruled that, by a narrow margin, enough signatures had been gathered to force a March recall vote.

Pacific Lumber spokesman Jim Branham estimated the company had spent $40,000 in the closing days of the recall campaign. "The recall campaign had hit a wall," he said. "The organizers had asked for our help. We felt a last push was needed."

Pacific Lumber's involvement in the recall appears to fall outside the scope of any state law, including those administered by the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state agency that regulates campaign finance.

"I've never heard of a situation like this before, where a defendant uses an election to go after the person bringing the lawsuit," said Bob Stern, former general counsel of the commission and now president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. "But there is clearly no prohibition. In a state that elects D.A.'s and judges, it would be very difficult, and probably unconstitutional, to regulate this."

The lawsuit filed by Gallegos last spring contends that Pacific Lumber deceived state agencies about its timber-cutting plans, resulting in massive landslide and flooding damage to local streams and farms. The company is accused of sidestepping environmental restrictions established under the historic 1999 Headwaters agreement, which set aside 7,500 acres of ancient redwoods in a public trust.

Pacific Lumber spokesman Branham calls the suit's allegations "bogus."

Company lawyers argue that the case has no merit and have sought its dismissal.

The lawsuit is so sensitive that two Humboldt Superior Court judges recused themselves from hearing the case. Another judge, Richard Wilson, agreed to hear dismissal motions, which are still pending. But the overall case was recently transferred to a retired judge in Lake County.

The effort to oust Gallegos was launched shortly after the district attorney filed his lawsuit. However, the main claims initially voiced by recall proponents, who included Fortuna Mayor Mel Berti and conservative former timber executive Robin Arkley Sr., were that Gallegos was soft on crime.

Gallegos, a 42-year-old USC graduate who moved to Eureka from Southern California nine years ago, characterized the recall as a battle between "small-mindedness, exclusion and good-old-boyism" and equality under the law.

"We cannot have two levels of justice in Humboldt County," Gallegos said. "That is how simple it is."

The recall campaign is the latest chapter in the redwood country timber wars, which pit the North Coast's largest private employer against local environmentalists, retirees and professionals who have settled there in recent years -- many of whom support Gallegos.

Despite the general shrinking of the California timber industry, Pacific Lumber, with its workforce of 900, remains a potent force in the region. According to Branham, the company does business with 400 local companies, generating $54 million in spending on goods and services.

Early in the recall push, Pacific Lumber remained out of the fray.

But for Gallegos supporters, the recall was always about the lawsuit, which marked the first time a senior elected official had dared to confront the timber giant, a subsidiary of Houston-based Maxxam Corp. and a dominating force in Humboldt politics for more than 100 years.

Pacific Lumber's last-minute actions to save the recall campaign were revealed this week in a letter to employees from company President Robert Manne. The letter was first reported Wednesday by the Eureka Times-Standard.

In a Thursday editorial, the Times-Standard scolded Pacific Lumber.

"Dealing with the allegation -- whether founded or not -- eliminating the accuser," the Times-Standard editorial argued, "is a doubtful way of proving one's case. It's a downright poor way to win a public relations contest."

Also on Thursday, the Eureka newspaper published an article showing that, under Gallegos, criminal prosecutions have actually increased from previous levels.

Gallegos' supporters were delighted by the developments.

"Now that it is public record that the recall effort is being funded by Pacific Lumber," said Richard Salzman, who heads the pro-Gallegos Alliance for Ethical Business, "we can move forward with an election dealing with the one and only real issue: whether the district attorney has the right to file a lawsuit against Maxxam's Pacific Lumber Co."

As of Thursday, no candidate had surfaced to oppose Gallegos in the recall vote.

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