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Lockyer's Motives for Reversal Are Questioned

Some say political ambition is driving the attorney general to take on Schwarzenegger.

November 10, 2003|Dan Morain and Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer is one of the more successful Democratic politicians of his era, with a reputed bent for political calculation and a driving ambition that could make him a candidate for governor in the 2006 election.

So when he first embraced Republican Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger as an ally, then seemed to discard him just as quickly, it raised a question that is now ricocheting through the capital: Just what is going through Lockyer's mind?

When it comes to Lockyer, the answer is never easy.

The mystery began a month ago, when Lockyer revealed to a crowd of consultants, political scientists and journalists that he had broken ranks with the Democratic Party and voted for Schwarzenegger in the Oct. 7 recall election.

Lockyer also seemed to trivialize allegations that Schwarzenegger mistreated and groped women over the span of three decades, dismissing the conduct as "frat boy" antics.

A friendship appeared to have gelled. But last week, Lockyer said in a news conference that the allegations aren't about to fade and deserve to be investigated -- and he shared a few nuggets from a conversation with Schwarzenegger on the topic the day before. That infuriated Schwarzenegger's transition team, whose spokesman a few hours later accused Lockyer of betraying a confidence, in violation of attorney-client privilege.

The battle escalated the next day. Lockyer told San Francisco radio station KGO that he had heard -- not first-hand -- of another alleged incident within the last year, and he suggested setting up an 800 number for women to report accusations against the incoming governor.

"It is important to clear the air," Lockyer told host Ronn Owens.

Legal experts questioned Lockyer's methods and motives.

"If there were anything to these stories, it's up to these people to come forward on their own -- not to have the attorney general promoting it," said Harland Braun, a criminal defense lawyer in Los Angeles and a Democratic activist. "And with this kind of statement it makes it almost impossible for the attorney general to work with the next governor. [Schwarzenegger] won't trust him. He'll think of him as very spiteful and petty and personal.... You have the attorney general making his life miserable before he even takes the oath of office."

Jan Handzlik, a former federal prosecutor and past chair of the American Bar Assn.'s national white-collar crime committee, said: "Instead of proposing a toll-free number to locate possible victims of possible crimes that may or may not have taken place, he should be seeking advice from the experienced prosecutors in his office about sensible investigative steps and appropriate prosecutorial practices. Unlike the use of an 800 number to locate missing persons or victims of some catastrophic event, the use of this technique here, targeted against one person, seems designed to garner publicity rather than build a criminal case."

Lockyer's spokesman, Nathan Barankin, said the attorney general would not comment.

Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who has represented Lockyer in political campaigns, said: "I have heard every theory known to mankind" about Lockyer's motivations. "I think he was trying to be Mr. Straight Talk."

State Sen. Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine), who ran against Lockyer for attorney general last year, has a different view:

"He took advantage of Arnold's naivete about how partisan politics works. He obviously used that against him.... Lockyer is a political animal. He is very partisan. He will do whatever he can to get to the top."

In California, the post of attorney general is among the best stepping-stones to higher office. Earl Warren was attorney general before becoming governor, as was Pat Brown. Stanley Mosk was attorney general before being appointed to the California Supreme Court.

But at age 62, Lockyer's best shot for running for governor is in 2006. He already has $10 million for his next campaign.

"He'd clearly be the front-running Democrat," Ackerman said. "Arnold blew his plans."

In a Capitol teeming with ambition, Lockyer stands out. He left his wedding reception earlier this year to hold a news conference about the case involving murder victim Laci Peterson, and he made front-page news in predicting that prosecutors had compiled a "slam dunk" case against her husband, Scott Peterson.

He was elected state attorney general in November 1998, having served in the Legislature for 25 years. He was president pro tem of the Senate from 1994 to 1998. Though a stalwart member of the Democratic establishment, he unleashed one of the more memorable lines of the recall campaign, cautioning Gov. Gray Davis to avoid the sort of "puke" campaign that, Lockyer said, was Davis' signature.

Schwarzenegger liked the term so much he lashed Davis with it repeatedly on the campaign trail.

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