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Lockyer Is Accused of Stacking Deck Against Initiatives

August 01, 2005|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

"We don't have a political agenda," said Lockyer, who oversees a 5,000-person office that is the chief enforcer of California law. "The only instruction I have given the professional staff is to get it right: Be accurate and fair, and help voters understand what a 'yes' and a 'no' vote means."

Lockyer said he frequently gets political pressure to change initiatives and isn't surprised that he is involved in several legal fights. He joked: "I've got 1,100 lawyers. I don't mind being sued."

As the state's chief attorney, Lockyer is required to write 100-word summaries and official titles for initiatives. Those synopses, which must be factual and free from bias, are considered important because they carry the imprimatur of the attorney general. Voters often rely on them in making decisions.

Lockyer has repeatedly said his professional staff does the legal analysis for initiatives and that he has little influence on how they come out. He said he has yet to change a single word of an initiative title and summary, although he will ask questions if something is unclear.

But Peter Siggins, Schwarzenegger's chief attorney, said the process with Lockyer was a little more complex. Siggins comes with a unique perspective; he served as a top-level deputy to Lockyer for five years before he started working for Schwarzenegger.

Lockyer "asked question and would make suggestions," Siggins said. "But if you are deputy A.G., or even chief deputy A.G. like me, and the attorney general has a suggestion or a question, then you try to discern his policy perspective and you try to give life to that."

Amid complaints about his handling of various initiatives, conservative talk radio hosts and other activists have been upset because of the toilet painting, one of 30 works by lawyer-artists on display in Lockyer's office until Aug 31.

The controversial painting was done by Stephen Pearcy, a lawyer who prompted outrage earlier this year by hanging an effigy of an American soldier outside his home in a middle-class Sacramento neighborhood. The effigy carried a sign that read, "Bush lied, I died." He received death threats.

The new work -- done with latex house paint on a leftover piece of plasterboard -- shows a map of the U.S. inside a toilet, with the words, "T'anks to Mr. Bush!" In an interview, Pearcy said he doubted Lockyer would put the painting in his home but said, "He's been pretty firm about his convictions that he doesn't like censorship, and I think he is going to stick to his guns on that."

But Republican Sundheim said the display -- the subject of a protest and extended shouting match between liberal and conservative activists outside the Justice Department building last week -- shows Lockyer's "inability to show good judgment. What if it had been a Koran in the toilet? What if it had been an unfavorable depiction of gay rights?... I don't think you would see that in the lobby."

But although Lockyer said he indeed would not hang the painting in his home, he denounced "Soviet-style" pressure to remove the work: "I absolutely will not censor some artist's work. Art often is controversial, not just some pretty picture."

The current criticism of Lockyer began after his office wrote a title and summary for the governor's planned overhaul of the public pension system. The document emphasized that the initiative would end death and disability benefits for police and firefighters, a politically explosive argument that led to a landslide of recrimination against the governor.

Last April, Lockyer told a state Democratic convention that his actions on the pension initiative "significantly contributed to the activities, the activism of nurses, teachers and others" who went on the warpath earlier this year, causing the governor to delay the initiative until next year.

In another incident, Lockyer's office wrote a summary of Schwarzenegger's government spending initiative, Proposition 76, that emphasized its most controversial aspect: budget cuts to schools.

What the governor chose to describe as the "Live Within Our Means Act" received a Lockyer title that sounded more ominous: "School Funding. State Spending." The summary noted that the measure called for a "suspension of minimum funding" for schools.

After receiving complaints from Steve Merksamer, a longtime Republican elections attorney, Lockyer's office changed the title of the initiative and the summary wording was softened. The title now mentions state spending first and school spending second, and it tells voters that surplus revenues would go toward tax cuts, the state budget reserves or construction projects.

Last week, in another incident that upset conservative activists, Lockyer released a title and summary for one of two planned constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriages -- by highlighting that it would end politically popular domestic partnership laws as well.

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