By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Attorney General Bill Lockyer has dropped criminal charges against Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach) stemming from a plot to plant a decoy Democrat in a 1995 Assembly special election. Though the state Fair Political Practices Commission may yet fine Baugh, Lockyer's move would pretty much wrap up a case that has been thoroughly dissected by the local media-except for one nagging detail: Orange County Register reporter Jean O. Pasco's effort to keep Congressman Dana Rohrabacher out of the scandal.
Three years ago, while the district attorney's office investigated Baugh, Pasco, then a Register political reporter, refused for almost three months to print a fact she knew to be true: that Rhonda Carmony-then a Rohrabacher aide, now his wife-was one of a few Republicans organizing the decoy effort. Pasco's crime was not merely one of omission, but commission, a kind of journalistic sleight of hand: in masking Rohrabacher's role, she worked feverishly to emphasize the involvement of aides to Curt Pringle, a Garden Grove Republican angling for the speakership of the state Assembly.
Carmony eventually pleaded guilty to two charges of falsifying campaign papers and agreed to 300 hours of community service and a $2,800 fine. But from Dec. 16, 1995 (when Pasco reported that Pringle aides were tied to the scandal) until March 7, 1996 (when Pasco obliquely reported the district attorney's announcement that it could not strike a plea-bargain deal with Carmony), the Register ran 12 Pasco articles on the Baugh story. Not one of them mentioned Carmony's involvement.
Three years later, Register officials have yet to explain this act of ham-fisted political deception; contacted recently, three Register editors involved in the original series refused to comment.
Pasco's radical departure from reality began with a Dec. 16 story in which she and fellow reporter David Parrish recounted one of the conspiracy's most dramatic moments-how two Pringle aides met decoy Democrat Laurie Campbell in a car outside the Orange County Registrar of Voters in Santa Ana and there, confronting a 5 p.m. deadline, falsified Campbell's campaign paperwork.
Significantly missing from the Register account was something else Pasco knew: the presence in that car of Carmony and Richard Martin, a former Rohrabacher aide. Four days later, Times Orange County reporter Peter Warren fired back with the complete story: "Rohrabacher, Pringle Aides Helped Campbell." That same day, Dec. 20, the Register ran a Pasco story in which Rohrabacher accused Orange County District Attorney Mike Capizzi of "running amok" in his investigation of the conspiracy. Pasco's story made no mention that Rohrabacher's top aide was involved.
That set the tone for the next three months' worth of reporting on the scandal. Times stories would routinely mention Carmony and Rohrabacher; Register stories would not. Eighty-two days and 12 stories later, the Register had still failed to tell its readers the truth. On March 9, two other Register reporters-Chris Knap and Stuart Pfeifer-got the full story out under a banner remarkable for its similarity to the Times' headline of Dec. 20: "Aides for Rohrabacher, Pringle Were Involved in Illegal Stunt."
In April 1996, approached by Weekly reporter R. Scott Moxley, Pasco first denied that she had kept Carmony-and therefore Rohrabacher-out of the scandal. Then, confronted with the evidence of her own stories, she pulled an about-face and said, yes, she deleted references to Carmony and Martin because her source-Baugh campaign worker Jeff Butler-"was just speculating" about their involvement, she said.
But as Moxley wrote in the April 26, 1996, Weekly, if Butler was speculating about Rohrabacher's role, he was also speculating about Pringle's.
Then as now, Register officials have refused to comment on the story. But word began to circulate among journalists that Pasco's editors on the story-Dennis Foley and John Doussard-were pissed and that their boss, Reg editor Tonnie Katz, was angrier. "We've had some run-ins [with the Weekly]," Katz told the Orange County Business Journal in November 1998. "They have really kicked us in the head." Word on the street was that Pasco regarded Moxley's story as libelous. The rumors became somewhat more formal in December 1997, when Pasco wrote an abbreviated account of the incident for Orange Coast magazine. Never mentioning Moxley by name nor the particulars of the controversy, she offered up Moxley's story as evidence that the Weekly took "a set of facts" and from those reached "erroneous conclusions . . . to blast me and the Register." She wrote that she called me "after [Moxley's] story ran. His response was what I've come to learn is typical: he empathized with my anger and let me vent and then responded that the conclusions were the responsibility of the writer-almost as if the story showed up on the doorstep, and he just passed it along."
Pasco is half-right: I empathized and allowed her to vent; I said I understood that it hurts to be criticized in public. But I also asked her a simple question: If Moxley is wrong, Jean, tell me what really happened at the Register? Why did you leave Rhonda Carmony out of your Baugh stories?
She said she could tell me-but only if we agreed to speak off-the-record. We did, but Pasco recently offered me an escape from my difficult promise. On Jan. 27, 1999, Pasco and I sat with three others for a cable-access public-affairs show. Later, in a room outside the studio, Pasco and I chatted until political commentator Bill Mitchell stepped in to ask humorously, "So, Jean, have you ever forgiven Will for the hatchet job his guy did on you?"