Superior Court Judge Robert T. Altman today dismissed indictments charging Rep. Bobbi Fiedler (R-Calif.) and her top aide, Paul Clarke, with campaign misconduct.
Altman said he based his decision on the insufficiency of evidence and the vagueness of the statute under which Fiedler and Clarke were indicted.
The three-term representative and her aide, who are engaged to be married, were accused of offering to pay the $100,000 campaign debt of state Sen. Ed Davis if he would withdraw from the crowded race for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate. Fiedler is a candidate in the race.
Prosecutors joined Fiedler's attorneys in submitting written arguments urging that the grand jury indictment against Fiedler be dropped because of insufficient evidence. But the district attorney's office maintained that there was strong evidence against Clarke, who pleaded not guilty at a pretrial hearing.
Altman cut short oral arguments in the case against Fiedler, saying, "The case could not be proven. It is in the interest of justice that it be dismissed." The charges against Clarke were argued at length. The obscure state elections code under which Fiedler and Clarke were indicted makes it a crime to "advance, pay, solicit, or receive . . . money or other valuable consideration . . . to induce a person not to become or to withdraw as a candidate for public office." The statute was written in 1893 and amended in 1977.
Altman ruled that prosecutors had misinterpreted the statute and erred in instructing the grand jury that Clarke's alleged "offer" to Davis was a violation of the law, because the statute does not contain the word "offer."
Addressing arguments by Deputy District Attorney Steven Sowders, Altman said, "[Prosecutors told] the grand jury that 'solicit' means 'offer.' Now you've turned around and said 'advance' means 'offer.' How can you do that?"
Altman added, "When you're dealing with a penal statute, the idea is that people should be able to look at it and see what it means." Altman said that the legislature's intent was unclear and that "the court would have to rewrite this statute to encompass the law we're talking about."
Sowders said an appeal is being considered.
Fiedler's attorneys have argued that the statute applies to personal payoffs, "money in someone's pocket," not to an agreement to help a rival candidate pay campaign debts, which defense attorney Harland Braun called "everyday, garden-variety politics."
After court, Braun said, "The main thing here is that the judge never decided the main issue: personal considerations or political considerations? I hope the legislature will address itself to this."
The Jan. 23 indictments grew out of an investigation prompted by Davis' statement to authorities that the Fiedler campaign had offered to pay him to drop out of the race. Fiedler campaign officials said that they discussed paying Davis' debt believing that he already had decided to withdraw.
Almost all of the evidence in the case was gathered after Davis' initial complaint and based on secret tapes recorded by Davis campaign manager Martha Zilm of conversations with Fiedler, Clarke and pollster Arnold Steinberg.
Fiedler and Clarke did not appear in court today. In a telephone interview, Fiedler took the district attorney's office to task. "I think," she said, "there is a lot to be desired in terms of the care with which they process their investigations."
Fiedler said she was "extremely elated" by the judge's decision: "Now I can get back to my primary task of winning the election and beating [Democratic Sen.] Alan Cranston in November."