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The Jerry Brown tapes: Never a dull moment

Transcripts of phone interviews with reporters show the once-and-possibly-future governor is as outspoken as ever. For a politics columnist, they make for fascinating, if somewhat guilty, reading.

November 12, 2009|GEORGE SKELTON

FROM SACRAMENTO — It seemed like eavesdropping on a private conversation -- or reading a rival journalist's notes. But I eagerly did it anyway out of curiosity about Jerry Brown.

What I found confirmed that the California attorney general hasn't changed a lot, at least in tone, since he was governor 30 years ago (1975-83). He's still argumentative, rebellious, inquisitive, self-confident, articulate, outspoken and egocentric.

A reporter's dream. And it's a big reason -- along with the surname inherited from his late father, the revered Gov. Pat Brown -- that he has managed to survive 40 years in politics and now is the early front-runner to replace Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But about the eavesdropping.

It was made possible by a tragedy of errors committed by Brown's then-communications director, Scott Gerber, 33, a former Washington spokesman for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein who had never flacked in California. Therefore he apparently did not know that it was against state law -- at least we thought it was -- to record a phone conversation without the permission of all participants.

But Gerber had been warned by a higher-up at the state Justice Department not to record such calls. And he did it anyway. That is, until he got into a beef two weeks ago with San Francisco Chronicle political writer Carla Marinucci over a relatively minor story.

Marinucci wrote an article about charges that the attorney general had favored a campaign contributor in writing the official summary of a proposed ballot initiative involving car insurance. A top justice official dismissed the charge as "absurd and nonsensical" in a phone interview with the reporter that Gerber secretly recorded.

When Gerber later saw Marinucci's story on the Chronicle website, he thought it was unfair. In a clumsy effort to get it changed, he sent an e-mail over the reporter's head to the metro editor -- rarely a good idea -- and attached a transcript of the covertly attained interview recording. Ooops.

"I'd always had good relations with Scott Gerber and saw him as responsible and responsive," Marinucci says. "But when he sent a transcript to the editors, that changed everything. . . . I couldn't ignore the actions -- unethical and, some argue, illegal -- from the man who represented the state's highest-ranking law enforcement officer. It was a news story."

Gerber soon resigned. But an internal investigation by the Justice Department concluded that he shouldn't be prosecuted because "on the record" phone interviews are exempt from the clandestine-taping law.

Ummmm. First I'd ever heard that. Don't think I'll test it. Gerber seems to be a special case.

The Chronicle filed a request under the California Public Records Act for transcripts of all phone interviews recorded by the attorney general's office without the participants' permission. Other news organizations, including The Times, also asked for the transcripts.

And on Monday they were released. They included four interviews with Brown -- three by Associated Press reporters and one by Shane Goldmacher of The Times' Sacramento bureau. All the reporters OKd the releases.

But it still makes me cringe. The public records act seems to be running amok when a reporter's private interview with a public figure can be handed over to competitors. I don't mind my interviews being taped. I just don't want the transcript being given out to rivals or political hacks.

I might want to hold back some of the quotes and info for a future column. Or I might be unsure how an answer should be interpreted.

Whatever. It's my business and my newspaper's. I'm no lawyer, but it seems to me that a reporter's interview with a government official is not public business. It's not like awarding contracts, appointing cronies or appeasing contributors.

That said, I shamelessly dug into those Brown transcripts immediately after downloading them.

Some Jerryisms that caught my eye:

* Brown striving for ink and being his own press secretary, responding to an AP reporter about attacks by attorneys for Howard K. Stern in the Anna Nicole Smith case:

"Did I respond enough, you think? Did I call him a Hollywood lawyer? . . . They're a little more inflammatory than I am so they get higher up in the damn story. So I gotta say something like 'shocking.' (He said it three times). . . . Play with it and if you need any more rhetorical fusillade, call me, will ya?"

* Telling the AP how he could break legislative gridlock: "I can knock heads together and get the job done from Day One. . . . I've done that before."

He didn't do it as governor on property tax relief, and that's what led to passage of Proposition 13.

* Responding to the snide digs of Republican guberna- torial contender Steve Poiz- ner about his being a career politician: "A certain amount of wisdom and maturity is needed in this toxic, partisan environment that the state has become. It's funny that he would think that ignor- ance has now become a virtue."

* On whether he's over the hill at 71: "Interview these other candidates and make your own judgment as to the agility of their minds. . . . Their thesis would be that physically and intellectually they possess some 'X' factor that I don't have. . . . It's blatantly stupid."

* Being Jerry the Jerk as Goldmacher interviews him about raising millions from special interests for his pet project, two charter schools he founded as Oakland mayor: "This is the Lord's work. . . . You have kind of a picky little thing here. . . . That's the luxury you have! I can tell you're a nice middle-class kid, you're not in the ghetto. Do you know they have murders in the state? . . . This is life and death!"

This Democrat is never dull. It was fun eavesdropping, but still creepy.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com

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