FORTY-EIGHT HOURS BEFORE last week’s primary election, voters in the 43rd Assembly District checked their answering machines and found the audio equivalent of a stink bomb: “What does Paul Krekorian have in common with a convicted terrorist? Plenty,” said the man with the pinched voice, who did not identify himself or the political entity paying for the call. “Convicted terrorist Mourad Topalian received an award from the Armenian National Committee and then pled guilty to weapons and explosives charges. Now, Paul Krekorian has accepted the endorsement of the Armenian National Committee.”
The caller explained how Krekorian — not to mention his wife, who is also Armenian — worked with the local chapter of the American National Committee of America to donate books to the Burbank Public Library. Then he offered a second warning about Krekorian, who was running for state Assembly in a district that includes Glendale and North Hollywood: “There’s no place in our community for a group that hands out awards to convicted terrorists. And there’s no place in the state Assembly for Paul Krekorian.”
The written version of the Krekorian attack was even more explosive, largely because the sender was the California Latino Leadership Alliance, a political-action committee that spent more than $60,000 on Krekorian’s opponent, Glendale City Councilman Frank Quintero. Suddenly, the attack was the subject of angry phone calls, press interviews and Armenian cable news shows.
“It’s an attempt to drive a wedge between the Armenian and Latino communities,” said Zanku Armenian, spokesman for the Western regional office of the Armenian National Committee of America. “It’s very unfortunate and actually disgusting that they would stoop to that level, trying to characterize an organization that does a lot of community service and voter outreach in that way.”
Quintero supporters were equally dismayed, saying the 11th-hour strike inadvertently smeared their candidate, a soft-spoken man who had spent 30 years forging ties with Armenian civic leaders. Still others said the campaign missive had the potential to leave lasting wounds in Glendale.
“We’ve had these underlying tensions between Latinos and Armenians for six years, and this flier doesn’t help,” said Glendale Community College trustee Victor King, who called the anti-Krekorian attack “the most racially divisive” he had seen in his city in 30 years.
Krekorian defeated Quintero in last week’s Democratic primary and, because the district is heavily Democratic, is expected to win the seat in November. But a week after the election, none of those responsible for the attack mail have been held to account, slipping through the cracks of the state’s arcane campaign-finance rules.
The California Latino Leadership Fund is an independent-expenditure committee, one of the entities that bankrolled some of the most vicious ads of the political season. By law, they may spend money on behalf of a candidate as long as that candidate is not involved in the effort. The California secretary of state’s Web site offers scant information on the organizers of the leadership fund, only listing phone numbers for the group’s treasurers, both of whom work at the Oakland-based firm Henry C. Levy & Co. Accountant Stacy Owens referred calls to the leadership fund’s lawyer, who did not respond to a request for comment. While she had seen the Armenian attack mailer, Owens had no comment on it.
“It’s not my job,” she said. “I don’t know the political atmosphere in Glendale, and I’m not responsible for content of mailers.”
Three contributors to the leadership fund said they were asked to contribute by Assemblyman Joe Coto, vice chairman of the California Latino Legislative Caucus. Jose Mejia, director of the State Council of Laborers, said his group gave $15,000 at a fund-raiser earlier this year and was under the impression that the committee was being funded with help from leaders of the Latino Legislative Caucus, Coto and state Senator Martha Escutia, D-Los Angeles.
“We do get invited and make contributions to some of these groups, and then we later find out they did something like [the attack mailer],” Mejia said. “Or they put money into somebody that we didn’t take a position on or even endorsed against.”
Coto did not respond to three requests for comment. Escutia said she was not involved with the California Latino Leadership Fund, but did attend one of its fund-raisers in the past year. Escutia, who said she was appalled by the anti-Krekorian mailing, had no contacts for the group and could not remember the day of the fund-raiser.
“I’m not aware of the comings and goings of independent expenditures, of which there are so many,” she said. “You’re asking me questions about an I.E. that I don’t have any control over.”
The California Latino Leadership Fund based its Krekorian attack mailer on Mourad Topalian, a one-time head of the Armenian National Committee of America who was indicted in 1999 by a grand jury in Ohio. Topalian, who was living in the Cleveland area at the time, was accused by federal prosecutors of participating in the 1980 bombing of the Turkish Mission in New York City. Topalian reached an agreement with prosecutors in 2001, pleading guilty to charges of storing illegal explosives and owning two machine guns.
At the time of his arrest, the FBI identified Topalian as a suspected leader of the Justice Commandoes of the Armenian Genocide. Topalian denied he was a terrorist but agreed to plead guilty to storing the weapons, which prosecutors insisted were used in the Turkish Mission bombing.
When the federal charges were filed, Topalian resigned from his post at the ANC, a group described by its members as fully integrated into the political and philanthropic life of Los Angeles and other parts of the country. The ANC endorsed the candidacy of Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti — whose Hollywood district includes Little Armenia — as well as Quintero and Krekorian in various races. The head of the ANC’s Glendale office, Steve Dadaian, served on Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s transition team.
When the terror mailer hit, Quintero posted a letter on his Web site denouncing it. Garcetti, who had endorsed Quintero, said the Glendale councilman was “sick to his stomach” over its contents. And King, the Glendale-college trustee, insisted that Quintero would never have engaged in such self-destructive behavior. “People are really upset about this flier, but they shouldn’t be directing it at Frank Quintero, who is innocent,” King said. “This guy is a really good guy, and if someone like him can be smeared by this, any of us could get it.”
Krekorian responded in a different way. With 36 hours left before the polls opened, he persuaded a handful of elected officials to denounce the attack through a new round of automated phone calls across the 43rd Assembly District. In Silver Lake and Los Feliz, calls were made by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg. In Glendale and Burbank, messages were left by state Senator Jack Scott. U.S. Representatives Brad Sherman and Loretta Sanchez also pitched in.
With the primary election behind him, Krekorian has made little progress in tracing the money that paid for the hit piece, finding instead a web of campaign committees and intersecting political relationships. “They do these things specifically to avoid accountability,” he said.
Fund-raising reports show that the California Latino Leadership Fund spent nearly $100,000 on behalf of state Senate candidate Lou Correa, who prevailed Tuesday in his race against Assemblyman Tom Umberg. Correa and Quintero relied on the same campaign consultant — Sacramento-based Phil Giarrizzo. A third legislative candidate backed by the Latino fund was Assembly candidate Renee Chavez of La Puente, whose political consultant was Leo Briones, Escutia’s husband. The Latino fund spent $42,630 on behalf of Chavez, a week after it paid Briones $99,398 to send mailers supporting Correa.
Furthermore, the California Latino Leadership Fund found other ways to fund Quintero’s Assembly bid. On May 10, it contributed $75,000 to the blandly titled Communities for Good Government. That group, in turn, spent $47,797 on Quintero’s behalf.
Communities for Good Government also spent $122,788 on the candidacy of Alhambra Councilman Dan Arguello, who ran for the state Assembly last week against Monterey Park Councilman Mike Eng. That group was also funded by a third committee, the Oakland-based Vote Matters, which has the same address and treasurer as the California Latino Leadership Fund.
Eng, like Krekorian, found himself the target of a last-minute mailer denounced as racially divisive. He had been seeking the West San Gabriel Valley legislative seat being vacated by his wife, Assemblywoman Judy Chu, who represents cities such as Monterey Park, Alhambra and San Gabriel — communities that are predominantly Asian and Latino.
Targeting Eng was a group identifying itself as the North-South-East Coalition to Reform Local Government, which warned that Chu had undermined the spirit of term limits by helping her husband. The mailer told voters that Chu’s seat “belongs to OUR COMMUNITY, the residents of the District.” In a much larger font, it added, “Mike Eng. He’s not like us.”
“It’s designed to alienate the Latino, Asian and Anglo communities from each other by saying we have nothing in common,” said Eng, who worked in the 1980s to defuse tensions between Asian immigrants and an angry Anglo old guard in Monterey Park.
While the anti-Eng group filed no contribution or spending reports with the secretary of state, the California Latino Leadership Fund regularly submitted fund-raising documents, which showed such contributions as $295,000 from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, $50,000 from the state’s real estate agents and $25,000 from Ameriquest, the mortgage lending company.
Chris Orlando, a spokesman for Ameriquest, refused to comment on his company’s contribution. Mark Giberson, spokesman for the California Real Estate Political Action Committee, referred all questions to Coto, the assemblyman who represents part of San Jose. “[Realtors] feel, and rightly so, that it’s the leadership of the fund that has to comment,” Giberson said.
Sacramento-based political consultant Sandra Polka, who received nearly $19,000 from the fund to craft the hit piece on Krekorian, did not return calls seeking comment. Another consultant involved with the fund also did not respond.
ASK QUINTERO THESE DAYS about the California Latino Leadership Fund, and he responds with another question: “You mean the group that completely fucked up my campaign and fucked me up with all my friends?” Quintero, after all, had to field the angry calls that came in after the anti-Krekorian mailer hit the voters. They came as a blow to a man who had taken pride in being called an ambassador to his city’s Armenian community.
“How are they going to be expecting that I had nothing to do with it? It’s unbelievable,” he said. “The campaign laws are nothing but crap. That’s the best way to describe it.”