The California press is still abuzz over Bill Simon's premature charge that Gray Davis took a political contribution at a state office building. The headlines are demoralizing. "Simon Retreats on Charges of Illegal Fund-Raising by Davis," reads one headline. "Simon's Claim Further Deflated," reads another.
In Monday's debate, Simon asked Davis if he had ever taken a political contribution at a state office. Davis evaded the "yes or no" question and Simon appeared to score a point. But Simon lost this advantage after the debate. Asked by the press if he had proof of Davis's wrongdoing, Simon pointed to a 1998 photograph of Davis receiving a check from Al Angele, the former head of the police organization COPS. "Unlike people's recollections, photographs don't change, they don't lie," he said.
Too true in this case. That is, Simon assumed that the office pictured in the photo was Davis's former office as lieutenant governor. But it isn't, which Simon now acknowledges to his embarrassment. The photo's backdrop turns out to be a private home.
Davis is naturally exploiting this Simon stumble to the hilt. "He should drop out," Davis feels cocky enough to say.
Is there any way Simon can recover from this? Only if he can show that his stumble is a stumble into a general truth: Davis is a corrupt fundraiser, not in this particular instance, but in so many others.
Davis's evasiveness in the debate is itself curious. It suggests that in his own mind he can't account for all the locations where he has accepted checks.
Simon at the very least should remind voters that Davis once asked the head of the California Teachers Association for a $1 million donation during a policy meeting at the state capitol.
Simon should also draw attention to a new Davis scandal. This one involves documents indicating that a Davis environmental adviser met with Tosco oil company officials a week before the company gave Davis a donation of $55,500.
Four months after receiving this donation, Davis granted Tosco state permission to increase its "toxic pollution flow into the San Francisco Bay by nearly 400 percent," reports the San Jose Mercury News. Winston Hickox, the Davis environmental adviser, says he can't recall meeting with Tosco officials before the donation. But the Mercury News reports that his "schedule book lists a meeting as taking place in his Sacramento office on Feb. 7, 2000. The topic: chemical releases from Tosco's Avon refinery near Martinez."
Two hours after the meeting, the paper reports, "an aide to Hickox sent e-mails to staff members of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board in Oakland, state records show. He asked how they might act on Tosco's request to increase releases of dioxin, a chemical that can accumulate in fish and lead to cancer and birth defects in people."
Davis is under so many clouds of corruption it is hard to keep track. The Sacramento Bee reports yet another: This week the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling "that a federal judge in Sacramento must release documents containing allegations about Davis' conduct when he was an assemblyman in the 1980s and later state controller."
The documents are part of an "old criminal case against disgraced former state Coastal Commissioner Mark L. Nathanson," reports the Bee. "He went to prison in a bribery scandal disclosing that he had sought payments from individuals with business before the commission. As part of a bid for leniency after his indictment in 1992, he offered to provide information to prosecutors about alleged misdeeds by a 'high political figure,' according to letters his attorneys provided to prosecutors."
Gray Davis is the "high political figure" fingered by Nathanson. The Bee, which brought the suit to unearth the letters, says "Nathanson had accused Davis of seeking campaign donations from people who, with Nathanson's cooperation, would get favorable treatment by the commission."
The press can justly criticize Simon for making wobbly charges. But they should have the perspective to see that clumsy campaigning is not as dangerous to the common good as corrupt governance.