By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Photo by Jack GouldTom Umberg is not a household name in Orange County, but in Democratic Party circles the Anaheim assemblyman is a heavyweight. He's a well-liked, veteran state legislator, ex-federal prosecutor and Army Reserve colonel who served with top-secret government clearance as deputy drug czar in the Clinton administration. Over the years, he's unsuccessfully campaigned to become California's attorney general, insurance commissioner and chairman of the state Democratic Party. After next year's elections, the conservative Democrat hopes to add the title of state Senator to his long résumé.
But Umberg, married for 23 years, has a big problem. He'll have to campaign without using the one word he so frequently employed in his previous campaigns: "integrity." In a June 23 LosAngelesTimesstory, he admitted that he'd had a four-year extramarital affair that ended last November.
"I want to apologize to those who have been hurt by what I've done and to put this behind us," Umberg told reporter Jean Pasco. Umberg's wife, Robin, said she learned of the affair on her own, confronted her husband privately, but "was going to go to my grave without my children knowing because Tom has been such a pillar of strength and integrity for all of us."
Umberg, who recently authored the "Truth in Sports Advertising Act" in hopes of blocking the Anaheim Angels from changing their name to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim is also clever. The Umbergs approached Pasco with the news and asked her to preempt an OrangeCountyRegisterstory they said would reveal the affair. One day after Pasco's story, John Gittelsohn the Register'sSacramento reporter published his bombshell apparently with the cooperation of the other woman. But Gittelsohn's investigation went far beyond phone records and emails documenting the affair. It also exposed another, potentially more significant issue: Umberg lied about his military service.
During the 2004 Assembly race, Umberg claimed he couldn't campaign at even one election event because he was stationed as a military prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. His wife attended local campaign events carrying a life-size poster of Umberg in uniform. The pair used his absence as a strength: Mrs. Umberg refused to describe any of her husband's political positions, suggesting that his work at Gitmo said everything that needed to be said. She regularly stood next to the cutout and said, as she did during a Nov. 1, 2004, NPR interview, "This is the kind of man he is. He's a bright man with tremendous integrity." During that same interview, the assemblyman stressed his family values.
The tactic thwarted any debates with Otto Bade, his Republican challenger. Umberg won easily.
But Gittelsohn learned what the Umbergs had kept from Pasco: instead of living in danger near the terrorist prisoners at Guantanamo Bay throughout the campaign, Umberg had "spent most of his time in the Washington, D.C., area." Besides "preparing legal briefs," he "attended dinners with politicians, watched baseball games, ran a 10-mile footrace and carried out an extramarital affair with a former Assembly staffer," according to Gittelsohn's story. In fact, Gittelsohn reported that the assemblyman had been to Cuba just twice for a total of only 16 days during the last four months of the campaign.
Umberg's preemptive media strike in the Timesworked. Other newspapers and wire services around the state carried Pasco's more sympathetic story or wrote their own versions based on it. They largely ignored Gittelsohn's more substantive, less salacious follow-up. In their June 24 follow-up article, the Timesstill didn't mention Umberg's sleight of hand over Cuba. It rewarded the assemblyman who could face Republican Van Tran next year for outgoing state Senator Joe Dunn's seat with a headline that surely put a smile back on his face: "Umberg Retains Support," a story based largely on the generous sentiments of Umberg's personal friends and chief of staff.
Gittelsohn got the last laugh, though. On June 29, Register columnist Frank Mickadeit outlined the hilarious backstory: Editors at the Reg only planned to reveal the Gitmo angle and not the infidelity. According to Mickadeit, Umberg's preemptive strike with Pasco and the Times "actually opened the door to us using . . . information we had not been entirely comfortable using beforehand."
In military parlance, we can say Umberg was downed by friendly fire—his own.