A woman who worked for a Westside developer has told investigators that her boss and a top official in Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn's 2001 campaign appeared to have discussed attack mailers aimed at Hahn's opponent, Antonio Villaraigosa, according to new evidence made available Thursday.
Erika Eskes, a former personal assistant to Mark Alan Abrams, said the businessman placed a call to the Hahn campaign's finance director, Troy Edwards, "minutes after" an office discussion of a so-called independent expenditure that financed the anti-Villaraigosa material, according to documents prepared by the city Ethics Commission.
Local and state laws allow individuals to spend as much as they want above contribution limits to influence political campaigns, but only if the expenditures are completely independent of candidates.
Eskes told investigators that Abrams leaned out of his office "chuckling" after his initial phone call with Edwards. The developer "told Eskes that Edwards would call back shortly because he 'wasn't supposed to be talking to us about this,' and that Edwards had to switch phones and go outside to continue the conversation," according to the summary of her interview.
"It was Eskes' impression that Abrams and Edwards were discussing an independent expenditure for Hahn," the summary said.
Hahn has said repeatedly since defeating Villaraigosa four years ago that neither he nor anyone in his campaign had any knowledge of, or involvement with, the mailers.
Targeting conservative voters, the mailers portrayed Villaraigosa as an "East Los Angeles liberal-fringe Democrat" soft on gang murderers and sexual predators. Analysts say they helped give Hahn his final margin of victory.
Villaraigosa, who is again challenging Hahn, alleged during the final days of the 2001 mayoral runoff that Hahn's campaign had a hand in arranging the mailers.
The district attorney later launched an investigation but found insufficient evidence to file criminal charges. Investigators, however, never interviewed Abrams, his business partner, Charles Elliott Fitzgerald, or their close associates.
"No one in the Hahn campaign, including Troy Edwards, knew about an independent expenditure campaign by Mark Abrams," Hahn's current campaign spokeswoman, Julie Wong, said in a statement Thursday.
Edwards, a former deputy mayor who resigned last year, did not respond Thursday to phone calls seeking comment. In a previous interview, he said he did not discuss mailers with Abrams during the campaign.
Abrams' attorney, Nathan J. Hochman, declined to comment Thursday on the mailers or any related phone calls.
Stephen Kaufman, Eskes' attorney, stressed that his client did not participate in phone calls described in the interview records, but had placed calls at Abrams' direction.
Villaraigosa's campaign spokesman, Ace Smith, said Thursday that the new ethics records put "Jimmy Hahn and Jimmy Hahn's campaign at ground zero of all the corruption over at Abrams' place."
According to the new records, Eskes told investigators that Edwards called her boss back a few minutes after their initial conversation. Shortly thereafter, Abrams asked Eskes to call William Lord-Butcher, the San Diego-based consultant who produced the fliers.
Eskes' description of the phone calls was corroborated by a source familiar with the workings of the office who was interviewed last year by The Times.
In the summary of her interview, Eskes told investigators that the mailers came out within a couple of weeks of the phone calls.
Lord-Butcher could not be reached for comment Thursday. He has said he did not deal with anyone in Hahn's campaign during the production of the mailers.
The requests for the mailers, Lord-Butcher said, came "out of the blue" from just one or two people, whom he did not know. Lord-Butcher said he could not remember their names and did not recall Abrams.
The new records add to questions surrounding $70,000 in expenditures arranged by Abrams and Fitzgerald to finance the anti-Villaraigosa mailers.
The Times has reported that Abrams was in close contact with Edwards around the time he contacted Lord-Butcher regarding the mailers.
In a period of three days in May 2001, four Hahn backers, including Abrams, arranged for $200,000 worth of similar mailers from Lord-Butcher, records and interviews show. It remains unclear how they all came to use the consultant's services.
The new records were compiled as part of an Ethics Commission investigation of alleged money laundering directed by Abrams. The agency's executive director, LeeAnn Pelham, has formally accused the developer of orchestrating $90,000 in illegal contributions, much of it to Hahn's 2001 campaign. The commission is scheduled to discuss the money-laundering case at a hearing Tuesday.
Hochman, Abrams' attorney, said that as part of an effort to cooperate and resolve the ethics agency case, the developer has tentatively agreed to accept a monetary penalty without admitting liability for alleged violations.