Covert Campaigner

Five weeks before Chris Cox's general-election romp and his failed 48-hour quest to replace Newt Gingrich as House Speaker, Orange County's ranking congressman secretly launched a bid to capture Dianne Feinstein's U.S. Senate seat in 2000.

Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show that on Sept. 24, the crafty Newport Beach Republican quietly funneled $900,000 in House campaign funds to an undisclosed account established in connection with an elusive San Diego genetics-company president.

If that's not odd enough, consider this: on Sept. 16-at the height of his 1998 re-election effort-Cox signed a formal "statement of candidacy" for Feinstein's seat, but he recklessly violated federal disclosure laws by withholding the document from regulators, political rivals and the public until Oct. 13.

While the establishment press tossed sweet written bouquets to Cox during his bid for Speaker, the OC Weekly reviewed the six-term congressman's recent activities and found the $900,000 transaction buried on page 14 of a 17-page federal disclosure report. Cox's written declaration for the upcoming senate race, also on file at the FEC, has sat in public view for more than a month without notice by major news outlets. When the dailies scramble to report the senate candidacy, they'll likely ignore the strangely secretive and behind-the-scenes machinations surrounding Cox's campaign kick-off.

For a decade, Cox has operated his campaigns from Newport Beach. In the current Senate bid, however, the congressman "transferred" the $900,000 from his Newport Beach-based congressional campaign to the vaguely named "Campaign 2000" on the 48th floor of a building on South Figueroa Street in downtown Los Angeles. A visit there found the office empty and the doors locked. Records show that the property is leased to Robert J. Sutcliffe, an attorney who once worked as Cox's congressional chief of staff.

I called Sutcliffe at the Figueroa address. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the LA phone number automatically forwarded my call to an office in La Jolla. A secretary answered. She politely confirmed that I had reached Campaign 2000. I then asked a seemingly innocuous question: Does the committee belong to Congressman Cox?

"Who are you?" she asked coldly. I told her my name and identified myself as a reporter.

She paused and said, "How did you find out about Campaign 2000?"

I explained, but Sutcliffe's secretary refused to answer a single question, and she then put me on hold. After a four-minute wait, she said: "I can't tell you anything. I'll have to ask Mr. Sutcliffe to give you a call."

Later, I learned that Sutcliffe's primary office is in La Jolla. I called that telephone number, and a receptionist answered, "Digital Gene Technologies." Sutcliffe-who was Cox's classmate at Harvard Law School in the 1970s-is president and CEO of the 3-year-old pharmaceutical and biotechnology company. I asked if I also had the correct number for Campaign 2000. She said yes, declined to answer questions, and put me on hold. Shortly thereafter, a woman came on the line-the same woman, it turned out, who had taken my call that morning.

"You've already called once," she said tersely. "You've been told that we cannot answer any questions."

She promised again to have Sutcliffe call. He never did.

Cox may not want serious scrutiny of his close relationship with Sutcliffe-who has at least once accompanied the congressman on an official government overseas trip.

IRS officials disclosed that in 1989, Cox's first year in Congress, the freshman congressman "curiously participated" in a tax hearing involving a feud between Guess? Co. and Jordache. Sutcliffe, then his chief of staff, had represented Jordache in the legal battle.

Or Cox-who could not be reached for comment-may not want to be tied to Sutcliffe's controversial world of human genetics. After European scientists cloned a sheep in 1997, Congress and the Newport Beach congressman-as head of the House Policy Committee-began delving into possible genetic-research restrictions. Earlier this decade, the federal government embarked on a $3 billion, multiyear plan for genetic research with private and public outfits.

Sutcliffe's Digital Gene Technologies -which claims to have received $12 million from undisclosed private investors-has joint business arrangements with several federally funded research institutions, as well as domestic and foreign pharmaceutical corporations. In 1996, the company received a U.S. patent for "total gene expression analysis," a commercially valuable method that identifies "gene activities."

Three weeks after transferring the $900,000-money collected from corporate executives and political action committees-to Sutcliffe's LA office, Cox filed a statement of organization for his new Senate committee. He did not mention Sutcliffe or the money, and he claimed Campaign 2000 is based out of a Newport Beach post-office box.

Politicians-particularly those as media-savvy as Cox-usually like hoopla surrounding their decisions to seek higher offices. That's what makes all the secrecy around the congressman's daring move for the Senate so strange. But Campaign 2000 is consistent with Cox's history of quietly probing for an easy path to advancement-and backing down at the first sign of resistance.

For several months in 1993, Cox claimed "Clintonomics" would prove "disastrous" to California, and he actively sought the GOP nomination to face Feinstein in 1994. He backed out just before he would have had to slug it out with primary opponent Michael Huffington. Afterward, Cox thought he saved face by employing a publicly acceptable excuse for dropping out: he did it "to preserve party unity." Feinstein went on to beat Huffington.

Republicans say Cox also considered a run against first-term Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, who was long considered easy prey. Cox didn't step forward, and Matt Fong found himself trounced by Boxer earlier this month. In the race to replace Gingrich as Speaker, Cox initially challenged Representative Bob Livingston (R-Louisiana) with gusto, but he abandoned his 48-hour campaign just as the battle intensified. He again claimed lamely that he quit for "party unity," ignoring the fact that Livingston would have crushed him.

More important, a hard-fought campaign for Speaker would have exposed Cox's decade-long ruse as a hardcore conservative, a man who was acceptable to the party's dominant Right wing. The onetime $500,000-per-year corporate lawyer's passion has never veered from reducing taxes on millionaires and expanding federal loopholes for multinational corporations.

Unlike the rest of the Orange County Republican Party's leadership (picture Tom Fuentes and the Reverend Lou Sheldon), Cox shies away from inflammatory social issues. He has, for example, quietly maintained that the federal government should not outlaw abortions. Cox is already despised by California's progressives for his friendliness to big business; upon closer inspection, social conservatives are likely to see Cox much as they saw the socially moderate but spineless Fong: contemptuously.

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