An aide to Rep. Bobbi Fiedler (R-Calif.) told state Sen. Ed Davis' campaign manager last month that once Davis quit the GOP Senate primary race, "I'm just going to get Bobbi on the phone with her max donors, and I expect you would get some bucks immediately," according to an investigator's tape recording.
The tape was one of several played today at a bizarre, seven-hour news conference by attorneys for Fiedler and her chief aide, Paul J. Clarke. Fiedler and Clarke were indicted last month on charges that they offered Davis $100,000 to drop out of the primary race.
Fiedler's attorneys also read excerpts from the transcript of grand jury testimony. They said Fiedler and Clarke thought that Davis had decided to withdraw from the race for the Republican Senate nomination and that they were discussing how to help retire his campaign debts in return for his endorsement of Fiedler.
On the tapes played for reporters, Fiedler aides are heard saying repeatedly that it would be wrong, and probably illegal, for them to guarantee to pay Davis' campaign debt in return for his withdrawal.
"You know I can't guarantee that," Clarke told Martha Zilm, Davis' campaign manager. The tape was made by Zilm, who had asked how much money Davis could get and when the first payment would be made.
On a tape of a climactic Jan. 12 meeting at Fiedler's San Fernando Valley house, Fiedler is heard telling Zilm, "This is not a quid pro quo as far as I'm concerned, and I hope you don't consider it a quid pro quo." Moments later, two prosecutors and two investigators arrived at her door to reveal that the congresswoman was the target of an investigation. Allegations of a payoff "are totally not true . . . ," she told them. "I would like to ask the question as to, am I being set up?"
Some of the tapes seemed to buttress Fiedler's charge that a glaring misunderstanding early in the talks between the Fiedler and Davis camps warped the later investigation. The tapes and transcript excerpts show that two Davis supporters gave investigators very different accounts of an initial, November overture to the Davis camp from Fiedler partisan Arthur Pfefferman, who acted without the knowledge of Fiedler or Clarke.
Taken together, the statements indicate that partisans of both campaigns exchanged increasingly distorted messages, much like children playing a game of telephone. In the end, an indirect inquiry from Pfefferman to Davis' campaign about rumors that Davis intended to drop out ended with Zilm telling the district attorney that Fiedler had offered to pay Davis $100,000 to quit.
The tape recording show that even after a two-month probe, investigators got a very different account from Davis supporter George Moss, who had passed the original message from Pfefferman to Zilm. In response to repeated questions from investigators, Moss said he thought Pfefferman was simply suggesting that the two camps talk about Davis' financial problems and about the rumor that he wished to drop out. He said he could remember no offer of money.
Today's news conference was unusual, even for California politics: two leading Democratic attorneys defending a Republican congresswoman against campaign-misconduct charges and using the prosecutors' tapes to do it.
UCLA law professor Daniel Lowenstein and attorney Harland Braun focused on Zilm, who went to prosecutors shortly after the initial contact from Pfefferman and used a concealed tape recorder in several subsequent conversations with Fiedler aides.
Former Los Angeles school board member Tom Bartman, a Fiedler friend and attorney who also appeared at the news conference, called Zilm sarcastically "a woman you are going to come to love." The indictment has shaken the crowded field of candidates vying to challenge Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) in November. Davis led public opinion polls last November, with Fiedler among the three closest contenders.
Other developments include reports from sources close to the case that the grand jury was sharply divided over whether to indict anyone and that the office of District Attorney Ira Reiner, a Democrat, recommended indicting Clarke but not Fiedler.
Fiedler attorneys played what they said were all the tapes given them by prosecutors as relevant to the case against Fiedler, and they released a full grand jury transcript after the news conference. Under state law, they could have kept the tapes and transcript confidential.
The sequence of events, as outlined in the tapes and testimony, began with Pfefferman, a Fiedler contributor and businessman in the San Fernando Valley neighborhoods where Fiedler and Davis have their political bases.
According to his grand jury testimony, Pfefferman sparked the volatile mix of law and politics by reacting on his own to "cocktail party talk" that Davis might quit the race because he was "having trouble raising funds."
Pfefferman testified that he called a Davis supporter, developer George Moss, to say he had heard that Davis wanted to drop out but needed help retiring his debt and finding an issue that would keep his name in the public eye.
Moss told investigators in a taped interview that he passed the message to Zilm. "We were earnest in our desire to do something that would be beneficial to the Republican Party," Moss said of his conversation with Pfefferman.
Zilm testified before the grand jury that Moss told her, " 'The Fiedler campaign is aware that the Davis campaign is $100,000 in debt, and they are willing to take care of the $100,000 debt if Davis would drop out of the campaign.' " Moss told two investigators in a conversation taped Jan. 12 that he simply passed on Pfefferman's suggestion of a meeting between the two camps and left Fiedler's intentions vague.
"Did [Pfefferman] mention any figure at all?" one investigator asked.
"No," Moss said.
"Did he mention $100,000?"
Later on Jan. 12 investigators questioned Moss again at his house and heard him say that Zilm might have mentioned the $100,000 figure to him first. Investigators asked him to call Pfefferman, ask about the initial conversation and secretly record the conversation, but Moss declined.
Last Dec. 18, Zilm met with Fiedler pollster Arnold Steinberg and recorded a conversation in which he said he was concerned about working within federal rules and doing "nothing that reflects adversely on either Bobbi or Ed . . . . We don't want somebody bought out . . . . We don't want a situation where it was a quid pro quo."
On Jan. 3, Zilm met with Clarke and told him that "George Moss had said if we get out of the race, you guys would take care of the $100,000 . . . . The only way Davis will do that is if that is taken care of."
"As you know, we will do our best," Clarke said. "But I can't guarantee that, you know I can't guarantee that."
On the tape, Clarke told Zilm that an attorney had said their deal would work "as long as you don't have a contract that says this is the quid and this is the pro quo." Braun, a Fiedler attorney, said the district attorney's office misunderstood what Clarke was talking about in a politician's shorthand. Braun said Clarke, believing that Davis already had decided to withdraw, was simply concerned that the two camps not have a formal agreement that would make it impossible for Fiedler's largest contributors to help Davis under federal election laws.
Zilm: "Can you give me an idea of how much money we can expect and when we can expect the first payment?"
Clarke: "I presume you would want it sent directly to you . . . . I'm just going to get Bobbi on the phone with her max donors, and I expect you would get some bucks immediately."
Prosecutors have said they told Zilm to alert Clarke to the possibility of a crime. On the tape, she says: "I don't know about you, but that makes me really nervous, because it is a payment to withdraw and I think that is illegal."
Clarke: "Well, we're not offering any payment. We're just offering to help."