By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
On Sept. 12, a Los Angeles judge reversed a jury's $78 million fraud verdict against a pay-phone business Bill Simon ran in partnership with a convicted Florida drug kingpin. Editorial page editors at The Orange County Register announced, "Court puts Simon back into race." Simon was equally relieved. "I am extremely gratified that the courts ruled as we always said they would," he said in a press release.
But Simon's carefully prepared statement once again inadvertently reveals the Republican gubernatorial candidate's penchant for deceit. It wasn't the "courts" that overturned the jury's 11-1 civil trial verdict. It was a superior court judge named James Cameron Chalfant, who, as The Financial Times of London noted, "provided a much needed lift to Bill Simon."
Reporters throughout California and the nation perpetuated Simon's self-serving word game. CBS's Dan Rather, for example, legitimized the ruling as a "political reversal of misfortune." Sacramento Bee reporter Gary Delsohn editorialized that the judge had provided "resounding vindication" for the millionaire businessman who inherited his fortune from his dad, a former Nixon administration official. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders wrote, "Simon has been exonerated."
Not so fast. No mainstream reporter bothered to point out that it is usually conservatives who berate judges who overturn jury decisions. But more important, none fully described Chalfant and the taint of his decision.
In their Sept. 13 story, Michael Finnegan and Matea Gold of the Los Angeles Times waited 33 paragraphs to tell their readers that, according to a campaign aide to Governor Gray Davis, the decision was a "partisan ruling by a Republican judge." Apparently neither Finnegan nor Gold had time to perform even a cursory background check on the 49-year-old Chalfant. (The pair finally allowed Davis a reaction quote in the 34th paragraph but screwed that up, too. They erroneously claimed that the governor had called the judge's ruling "appropriate." He didn't, and on Sept. 15, the Times apologized for the gaffe.)
But the Times wasn't alone in bungling. Five days after Chalfant's ruling, the mainstream press largely had still failed to disclose easily obtainable and obviously relevant information about the judge's close ties to the Republican Party. Recognizing the gift of the omission, GOP strategists were quick to convince reporters that the real story had shifted from the case to the campaign. Who has time to look at the judge when the new verdict means, as the GOP's Ken Khachigian said, "the resurrection of William Simon"?
Lost in the overblown rhetoric are the following facts about Chalfant:
•He and his wife, Michele, are longtime registered Republicans.
•He was appointed to the bench in 1998 by then-Governor Pete Wilson, a Republican and board member of the politically conservative Irvine Co., one of the largest campaign contributors to the California Republican Party and its gubernatorial candidates.
•Before he became a judge, Chalfant was a lawyer who specialized in defending wealthy corporate executives against the FBI and the state attorney general.
•He's a longtime Republican benefactor. Over the past several election cycles, Chalfant and his wife have contributed at least $3,750 to California Republicans such as Matt Fong, Jim Rogan and Pete Wilson.
Given that most newspapers failed to detail Chalfant's connection to the party attempting to put Simon into office, it was understandable that they would also ignore Davis campaign spokesman Roger Salazar's observation. "As a Democrat, a Republican-appointed judge's reverse of a decision during a campaign in a favor of a Republican candidate rings all too familiar," said Salazar. Indeed, it does. In 2000, the Republican-controlled Supreme Court intervened on behalf of George W. Bush, who lost the presidential popular vote to Democrat Al Gore in 2000.
Ironically, it was Simon—not Davis or the Democrats—who first raised the issue of partisanship in the fraud case. After the bombshell jury ruling on July 30, Simon detectives investigated the background of jurors and allegedly found that one of them (they refused to identify the juror) had been "active in Democratic politics." (Somehow Simon's dicks forgot to disclose if any of the other jurors were active Republicans.) Adopting a conspiratorial tone, the candidate told reporter Dave Lesher of Statenet.com he believed that the lone Democrat juror had "tainted the fraud verdict." The judge's party affiliation and connections went unmentioned.
With Chalfant's "impartial ruling"—as one Republican strategist boldly told an LA radio station—Simon says he will try again to portray himself as an honest businessman in the campaign's final weeks.
But that portrayal flies in the face of an ugly reality: even Chalfant can't erase what the case revealed about Simon. Under oath in May, the candidate played the fool when he testified about the multimillion dollar phone company he helped found, manage and own:Question: Are you familiar with a company called Coinable Simon? Bill Simon: Not really. Did you ever have a position with Coinable Simon?
Not to the best of my recollection.Did you know Coinable Simon existed?
I heard the name.That's about all you know about it?
That's about all I know.
Unlike Chalfant, the jury of 12 citizens was not amused by Simon's prevarication; one juror told reporters that he felt "insulted" by Simon's defense. But that reasonable assessment has been lost in the media's pro-Simon hype, best typified by Investor's Business Daily. That paper argued that no one can now accuse the Republican nominee of being "the grainy face of corporate evil." It's time, they said, for Simon "to step up to the plate and start swinging with some conviction" that his campaign represents moral superiority.