Secret tapes: How damaging to Jerry Brown’s bid for governor?

California Attorney General Jerry Brown's spokesman secretly recorded conversations with reporters. Under pressure from GOP rivals for governor, Brown now says he'll investigate.

By , Staff writer

A leading contender to replace California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger next year has gotten himself into a political pickle.

Under pressure from his potential Republican rivals, Attorney General Jerry Brown – California’s top law-enforcement official – has ordered an independent investigation into his former spokesman, who secretly recorded several conversations with journalists.

Former Brown spokesman Scott Gerber secretly recorded six interviews – prohibited by California law – and was already exonerated by Brown’s own assistant attorney general. But GOP officials publicly excoriated Attorney General Brown for not asking someone outside his office to investigate. Tuesday, Brown responded by asking Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley to investigate.

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Brown's hand was forced by other event, as well. He is investigating possible violations of state privacy laws in a sting operation on ACORN. Avoiding the investigation into Mr. Gerber would have presented a potentially damaging public relations dilemma.

If Brown charged those who secretly filmed ACORN, he’d be open to claims of hypocrisy for not charging his own assistant. If he didn’t charge the filmmakers, he would have been criticized by grass-roots liberals and supporters of ACORN, who are angry that the US House recently cut federal funding after the videos caused a national outcry.

The videos show ACORN employees counseling the filmmakers – who are pretending to be a pimp and a prostitute – how to avoid paying taxes.

Tuesday, Brown asked Alameda County D.A. Nancy O’Malley to “review the circumstances surrounding the recording of several telephone conversations with reporters by a former press aide,” according to a letter Brown sent to Ms. O’Malley Nov. 13.

The move came two weeks after the story broke in the state press. But observers say it's better that Brown make the move now than later.

Jerry Brown has done a great job of trying to avoid Republican criticism based on the secret taping of phone conversations of his former communications director,” says Jessica Levinson, political reform director for the Center for Governmental Studies. “This is a very smart political move. Now, no one can accuse Brown of trying to sweep this incident under the rug, or attempting to downplay any potential legal consequences. Brown is doing his best to air this whole story now, so it doesn’t gain any traction once his campaign [for governor] really starts up.”

Other observers say the political fallout to Brown will depend on what the investigation shows.

“The investigation … leaves open the potential that he’s going to be charged with something,” says Kareem Crayton, associate professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California. “It might affect how he is perceived among liberal voters in the primaries.”

No matter what legal charges Brown may face as a result of the investigation – taping phone conversations is also a violation of federal law – he is currently suffering political damage. The content of some of the recordings has been reprinted in several key state newspapers.

“The interesting part lies in the recordings themselves,” says Jack Pitney, professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College. “They offer a window on how politicians deal with reporters. At certain points, Brown is explicitly trying to shape coverage.”

“He’s still argumentative, rebellious, inquisitive, self-confident, articulate, outspoken and egocentric" wrote George Skelton, the state’s leading political columnist, who ran several paragraphs of the transcripts verbatim.

See also:

What is the ACORN controversy about?

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