See No Evil Republicans

Blackouts at the Times

The Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times told its readers there was only one important story from Huntington Beach on April 13: a nursery employee had been electrocuted while moving a potted palm. That same day's Orange County Register reported that a half-dozen blue-jacketed detectives from the district attorney's office had conducted early morning raids on the office and home of Huntington Beach City Councilman and former mayor Dave Garofalo.

"It was the first high-profile public development in months in prosecutors' nine-month Garofalo probe, which centers on allegations that he voted on city contracts in which he held a financial interest," wrote the Register's Felix Sanchez.

The raids were big news in political, media and law-enforcement circles on April 12 and 13. For more than 20 months, Garofalo and his mentor, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), insisted the allegations were unfounded attacks by the mayor's liberal opponents and unethical reporters. Approved by District Attorney Anthony J. "Tony" Rackauckas—also a Republican and a pal of Garofalo's—the raids led broadcasts on the Orange County News channel and local radio stations for more than 18 consecutive hours.

But even after an entire day to recover and report on what is arguably the biggest corruption scandal in Huntington Beach history, the Times newsroom inexplicably chose to ignore it again on April 14. On that day, the only Huntington Beach news published in the Times was an ironic news brief: Pacific Liberty Bank, a bank connected to the Garofalo scandal, recorded a 27 cents-per-share profit with a 62 percent increase in assets during the last year. Under suspicious circumstances, Garofalo obtained stock and a board position in Pacific Liberty while another major investor in the bank, developer George Argyros, was pressing a huge real-estate project before Garofalo's city council.

The DA's raid was so obviously newsworthy that the Register followed with reports on April 14 ("Raids on Huntington official spark mixed reactions in city"), April 15 ("New activity in Garofalo probe") and April 19 ("Garofalo believes DA's raids will bring closure").

The Times' only mention of the raid came on April 15 in Dana Parsons' Metro column. It was a telling—and, for the Times, embarrassing—mention. Parsons wrote, "At the office . . . I picked up the newspaper and read that investigators from the Orange County district attorney's office had raided Garofalo's home and business office the day before." It's clear the "newspaper" he was referring to was the Register, not the Times.

This latest journalistic gaffe underscores the daily paper's unsteady news judgment. In June 2000, this column slapped the Times for its then nine-month news blackout on the allegations against Garofalo. (The full story was developed by the Weekly's Dave Wielenga and Anthony Pignataro, as well as reporters at the Register and even by the Times'own neglected community newspaper, the Huntington Beach Independent.) In the weeks after that column ran, the Times seemed suddenly to discover Garofalo and ultimately published more than 15 articles and an editorial on the scandal.

Ironically, the Times' Garofalo articles—tardy but generally competent, if derivative of other reporters' work—won second place for investigative reporting at the April 29 Orange County Press Club awards. Little did the judges know that by then, the paper had resumed its odd blackout of scandal coverage.

The Garofalo blackout is part of a pattern of the paper's soft treatment of local Republicans. Consider a related story: George W. Bush's nomination of Argyros, the developer tied to Garofalo through Pacific Liberty Bank, as ambassador to Spain. In stories about the Newport Beach Republican businessman, Times reporter Jean O. Pasco repeatedly failed to mention that the same DA investigating Garofalo is also investigating charges that Argyros' Arnel Management Co. systematically ripped off apartment tenants. After this column took Pasco to task for the omission ("Send George Packing!" April 6), she allowed UC Irvine professor and Weekly contributor Mark Petracca to raise the Arnel investigation in her next story on reaction to the Argyros appointment. Petracca's comments were deleted from the version that ran in the national edition.

Pasco was involved in another blackout five years ago. On Dec. 16, 1996, while the DA investigated Huntington Beach Assemblyman Scott Baugh, Pasco—then a Register reporter—ran the first of several stories that failed to disclose an important fact that Pasco knew to be true: aides to U.S. Representative Rohrabacher were among a group of Republicans organizing a decoy effort to assure Baugh's election. A Baugh campaign worker says he told Pasco and then the Los Angeles Times about Rohrabacher's aides. These aides made a headline appearance in several Times stories beginning on Dec. 20, 1996, but were MIA from Pasco's stories for the next three months. In masking Rohrabacher's role, she worked feverishly to emphasize the involvement of aides to Curt Pringle, a Garden Grove Republican then angling for the speakership of the state Assembly. Eighty-two days and 12 stories after the Times first broke news of Rohrabacher's role in the scandal, Pasco had still failed to tell the whole story. Then, on March 9, 1997, two other Register reporters —Chris Knap and Stuart Pfeifer—got the full story out under a banner remarkable for its similarity to a Times headline from Dec. 20, 1996: "Aides for Rohrabacher, Pringle Were Involved in Illegal Stunt."

Then as now, the central figures remain the same: Rohrabacher and a group of Huntington Beach Republicans. Then as now, the reporter is the same—only the papers have changed.

 
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