SACRAMENTO — The dispute was hardly dead, but the charges that Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger abused more than a dozen women over the past three decades had receded from the headlines. Attention was pivoting to the upcoming inauguration. Schwarzenegger was making news by filling out his Cabinet and appointing senior staff. No new accusations had surfaced since his election victory on Oct. 7.
Yet in the span of an afternoon on Thursday, the focus lurched from Schwarzenegger's methodical efforts to build a government to the uncomfortable question that had dominated the final days of the recall campaign: his treatment of women.
At a news conference about an unrelated lawsuit, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer took a question about the groping allegations. He largely repeated a point he had made during the campaign: that the accusations were troubling and should be investigated. He said he had told Schwarzenegger as much during a private meeting the day before. It might have ended there.
But Schwarzenegger's transition team quickly arranged a conference call with reporters, where a spokesman aggressively rebuked Lockyer.
During the call, Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman also disclosed that the governor-elect would hire a private investigator to examine the allegations.
The thinking behind both statements was "surprising," Walt Stone, chairman of the political science department at UC Davis, said Friday. "It surprised me that they reacted at all."
Stone said, "The flow of news was away from this, and the emphasis was on the establishment of the new administration. What this does is bring it back."
GOP political strategist Dan Schnur said he saw "two silver linings" in Schwarzenegger's reaction to Lockyer.
"It sends a strong message to everyone in the Capitol about how seriously the new governor takes the confidentiality of private conversations. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Lockyer are both smart enough politicians to put this behind them in pretty short order. But the first time a legislator thinks about going public with the details of a private conversation, they'll remember how hard a slap Lockyer took."
Some Democrats were more critical of the governor-elect. "If we have the Schwarzenegger team investigate the allegations, we might as well have Ken Lay investigate Enron's behavior," said lawyer and state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana). "There's no credibility to that."
He added, "I can't for the life of me figure out any upside" to the Schwarzenegger response.
In revealing what the two men had discussed, Lockyer violated attorney-client privilege, Stutzman said during the conference call. Yet legal experts said Schwarzenegger had no right to confidentiality. Lockyer is the independently elected attorney general for the entire state, not Schwarzenegger's private attorney, they said. And in any case, Schwarzenegger is not yet the governor. Pressing a claim that scholars contend is legally dubious could resurrect a concern raised during the campaign: that as a former actor and bodybuilder who has never held elective office, Schwarzenegger is not schooled in the workings of state government.
"California politics is turning into a French bedroom comedy," said Jan Handzlik, a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles who now specializes in white-collar criminal defense.
"Mistakes like that -- not knowing the relationship between the governor and the attorney general -- are not a good thing for a governor that's trying to convince the people that he's competent and knowledgeable," said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley.
In an interview Friday, Stutzman stood by the view that Lockyer had violated the legal code that protects conversations between attorney and client. Lockyer had "presented himself" to Schwarzenegger as the governor-elect's lawyer, and that is how Schwarzenegger had seen him, Stutzman said.
Schwarzenegger's new legal advisor, Peter Siggins -- himself a former deputy to Lockyer -- had reached the same "clear opinion," Stutzman said. Schwarzenegger's office declined to make Siggins available for comment on Friday.
Asked why the governor-elect had responded to Lockyer's statements, Stutzman said there had been a need to protest disclosure of a "privileged conversation."
"The attorney general raised the issue," he said.
Harvey Englander, a Los Angeles political consultant, said: "Saying that they're going to hire a private investigator for some unknown purpose and they may or may not release the results -- it smacks of, are they investigating the lives of the women who made the accusations? For a governor that has an opportunity to look forward, it is a strange look backward that they are taking."
He added: "They've brought up an issue that proved in the election not to have any staying power, and they've given it its own staying power. If anything, they've given credibility to an issue that was no longer on people's minds."