Campaign Smear Victims Left With Little Protection

Law: Ruling restoring the right to send anonymous hit mail hobbles a candidate falsely accused of molestation

By Hugo Martin, Times Staff Writer
Published April 8, 1999. Copyright, Los Angeles Times.


Danger! Danger! Danger! We run the risk of having a child molester on the
City Council. Don't vote for Joe Ruiz "The Molester."
--From an anonymous political flier

* * *

Joe Ruiz wants everyone to know that he is innocent. He was never charged with molesting four boys in his backyard pool and he has the police testimonials to prove it. He doesn't even own a pool. Ruiz has been trying to convince people that he is an upstanding, law-abiding man, ever since he was accused of molesting the boys in an anonymous campaign mailer sent out during his recent campaign for South Gate City Council.

A longtime business owner and youth football coach, Ruiz said the
accusation--contained in what looked like an article from a fictitious local
newspaper--cost him the election and inflicted terrible pain on his family.
"Someone has to be held accountable," he said angrily.
But a court ruling this year makes it harder for Ruiz to identify the people who
slimed him, and it may encourage more anonymous attacks in future campaigns.
The 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana struck down a state law that requires
candidates and committees to identify themselves in the campaign material they
distribute.
The court ruled that the law--passed in 1974 in response to a series of libelous
anonymous hit pieces--violates the constitutional right to speak and write without fear
of retribution.
The flier's accusation against Ruiz was the most vicious charge in what many call
the dirtiest political campaign in the history of South Gate, a mostly Latino community
of about 87,000 residents in southeast Los Angeles County.
Several of the other 14 candidates vying for three seats on the council say they were
also the victims of anonymous charges.
Scholars say campaigns in working-class Latino communities have become more
contentious because a growing wave of Latino activism has spawned a new generation
of candidates competing for a relatively small number of positions.

'I Was Totally Devastated'
The anti-Ruiz mailer hit four days before the March 2 election. One of Ruiz's
supporters found the piece in her mailbox and showed it to him.
"I just couldn't believe it," he said. "I was totally devastated."
The mailer screamed, "Danger! Danger!" and then included what appeared to be a
reprint of an article from something called the South Gate Press. The story said Ruiz
was charged with molesting four boys, ages 13 and 14, during a swim party in his
backyard pool. It said he touched the boys on the buttocks and genitals.
The article said Ruiz faced 27 years in prison if convicted. It also took a shot at
Ruiz's political ally, Mayor Henry Gonzalez, charging that he bailed Ruiz out and was
"keeping this story a secret."
Another mailer sent out by a group called Citizens for Honest Government accused
Gonzalez of cutting back-room deals with trash companies and taking kickbacks from
car dealerships. The address given for the organization, however, does not exist and the
group is not registered with the California secretary of state, as required for political
committees.
Ruiz tried frantically to clear his name before the election. He obtained a letter from
South Gate Police Chief George Troxcil confirming that the candidate had not been
charged with or arrested for any crime. Ruiz also sent his fingerprints to the California
attorney general's office so they could be checked against the state's computer records.
Again, Ruiz was cleared.
He tried to distribute Troxcil's letter before the election, but the damage had been
done.
When Ruiz ran for City Council two years earlier, he received 1,138 votes. This
year he got 809, coming in ninth in a field of 15.
Gonzalez was barely reelected, by a 33-vote margin.
Even if Ruiz finds his villain, the state Fair Political Practices Commission may not
be able to take action. In January, the appeals court invalidated the law that had allowed
the agency to fine campaigns that distributed anonymous hit pieces. The commission
is appealing the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
Although nasty anonymous fliers are nothing new to local politics, watchdog
groups and legal experts predict that the ruling will encourage more outrageous
smears.
"Political campaigns are known for doing whatever they are legally allowed to do,"
said Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause.
The appeals court ruling sought to balance the 1st Amendment right to speak and
write anonymously with the state's interest in a well-informed electorate. But FPPC
officials fear that the court tipped the scales too far in favor of protecting speech.
"With this decision, there are going to be a certain number of libelous, barbaric hit
pieces," said Steve Churchwell, the agency's general counsel.
The court made its ruling in the case of Daniel Griset, a former Santa Ana city
councilman who was fined $10,000 by the FPPC for five anonymous mass mailings
criticizing his opponents that he sent out in his 1988 reelection campaign.
Griset challenged the California law, saying it violated the state and federal
constitutions.
The appeals court agreed, citing a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down
an Ohio law that required all campaign literature to contain the name and address of the
person responsible.
The high court issued its ruling in the case of an elderly woman who was fined for
passing out leaflets in opposition to a local school tax. In that case, the justices cited an
American tradition of anonymous pamphleteering dating back to John Adams, James
Madison and Thomas Paine.
FPPC lawyer Churchwell argued that the California law is narrower than the Ohio
statute because it applies only to committees or candidates who send more than 200
pieces of literature within a month.
"There is a constitutional right to speak anonymously," he acknowledged. "But
there are boundaries to that. You can't shout fire in a crowded theater."
Griset's attorney, Bradley Hertz, called the appeals court decision a victory for free
speech and said he doubted that it will change the nature of campaigning in the state.
He said candidates and campaign committees have always hid or disguised their
identities when sending out campaign mail.

Ex-Candidate May Testify in Court
FPPC officials say the attack on Ruiz's integrity was such a vivid example of the
need to maintain the disclosure law that he may testify on the state's behalf if the
Supreme Court agrees to hear the Griset case.
Regardless of what happens to the state law, Ruiz can still file a libel suit against
those responsible for the mailer--if he can identify them.
But the mailer gives no indication who sent it. The only clue on the flier is a postage
permit number, which is registered to Mini Mailers, a direct mail company in the City
of Commerce.
A supervisor at Mini Mailers said he remembers the man who paid to send the hit
piece. The supervisor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the man paid cash,
about $1,100, to have the flier mailed to 2,400 registered voters in South Gate.
Although the man identified himself as Jose Hernandez, he gave no address and the
supervisor said he is certain the name was fake.
"I asked him what name we should put on the receipt, and he said he didn't care
about the receipt," the supervisor said. "He said, 'Just get this out.' "
Ruiz and Gonzalez believe that the man behind the anonymous attacks was city
Treasurer Albert Robles, an ardent Gonzalez critic. But they have no proof.
Robles denied any involvement and accused Ruiz and Gonzalez of sending their
own anonymous hit pieces against opponents in the race. Ruiz and Gonzalez rejected
the charge.
Ruiz is a high school dropout from East Los Angeles who ran with a gang when he
was young. But he eventually gave up the gang life to start a family and build a
plumbing business in South Gate. For 10 years he has coached a youth football team,
which won its first championship last year. The players are the same age as the boys
he was accused of molesting.
He said his close friends believe that he is innocent but he has heard the parents of
some players talk about "the molester" on the coaching staff.
During a recent meeting of coaches and volunteers for the team, Ruiz said, he was
forced to explain that the accusation against him was part of a political smear
campaign.
He said his wife often cries about the accusation. His 16-year-old daughter recently
heard a high school classmate joke about her father, "the molester."
Will Ruiz run for a South Gate council seat in 2001?
"I don't know if I will subject my family to this anymore," he said. "Maybe I can do
more in the community without going into an elected office."

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved







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