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?”
It was clear what hatchet job and which guy he was talking about. I looked at Pasco with bemused curiosity. She explained to Mitchell that "all that” had been handled long ago, that the story behind it was in fact one of the reasons she had since abandoned the Register for the Times, where she now works as that paper's lead Orange County political reporter.
What Pasco told Mitchell was precisely what she told me off-the-record after Moxley's April 26, 1996, story and again in December 1997: to save space, a Register editor had deleted all references to Carmony and Rohrabacher in her first story, and when she attempted to write a comprehensive article documenting Rohrabacher's role in the scandal a few days later, the editors spiked it-journalistic parlance for killing a story. According to Pasco, the editors told her the story was old news-though clearly not so old that Pasco and fellow Register reporter Daniel M. Weintraub couldn't manage to write a long piece once again detailing Pringle's critical role (Dec. 19, 1997) and allow Rohrabacher to pummel the DA (on Dec. 20, Dec. 23, and Dec. 24), never once mentioning Rohrabacher's role in the Baugh scandal.
"Sounds to me like Moxley's story was right,” I said. "The Register did keep Rohrabacher out of the story.”
No, no, Pasco insisted. The editor's motives weren't sinister, she said. He cut references to Rohrabacher to save space.
"He needed to save space-and so he cut out the fact that a U.S. congressman was directly implicated in one of the county's biggest political scandals?” I asked.
The editor was new to the Register, she said. He just didn't understand the significance of Rohrabacher's involvement.
"Didn't understand the significance of the honorific 'U.S. congressman' before someone's name?” I asked incredulously. "Jean, you don't have to be a genius-or an Orange County native-to understand the significance of what that editor cut out of your stories.”
Well, that, Pasco said with finality, "is one of the reasons I finally left that place.”
If that was one of the reasons Pasco cites for leaving the paper, it's also a decision she inexplicably-one might say contradictorily-defends. "On deadline, you have to make quick decisions,” she recently told a Weeklyreporter. "Some are good, and some are bad.”
Pasco's explanation-that a harried Register editor cut Rohrabacher out of the stories to save space-beggars credulity. It requires one to believe that the same snap decision was reflected in the paper's reporting again and again-not just on Dec. 16, but also every time the Register covered the Baugh story, which was 12 times until early March 1996. That constitutes a pattern of misrepresentation.
More difficult to explain is Pasco's ever-changing account of the incident: that she didn't keep Rohrabacher out of the stories; or that she did, but only because her source was unreliable; or that she didn't, but that her editors did, and then only to save space; that the desire to save space was a tough call but a legitimate one; or that the decision to cut the relevant passages for space was illegitimate and ultimately one of the reasons she chose to leave the Registerfor the Times.
Considering this pattern of Clintonesque prevarication, it's clear Moxley's April 1996 article was right: Pasco had early evidence that Carmony was in the car with Pringle aides on the day they falsified campaign documents-and then Pasco blinked, and Carmony wasn't in the car, and Rohrabacher wasn't in the Baugh scandal. As Moxley told me recently, "If Jean Pasco had been the lone reporter at Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963, the world may have learned only that Lee Harvey Oswald shot Governor John Connelly in the wrist.”
On Jan. 31, Register ombudsman Dennis Foley used his column to talk about how seriously the Register takes its responsibility to get facts straight. "[E]ven the smallest inaccuracies misinform,” Foley wrote. His essay was a monument to the miniscule: how Lotto awards are calculated and a Reg editor's promise to “be more sensitive” to the paper's youthful readers. But how about errors that go beyond mere “inaccuracies”? What about blatant historical revision? More than three years after its 82 days of self-imposed censorship, the Register still hasn't acknowledged its role in one of the biggest political scandals in Orange County.
To read Moxley's April 26, 1996, article on the Register's coverage of the Baugh scandal, go towww.ocweekly.com/ink/archives/97/news-moxley.shtml.