By Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine
Consumer Watchdog, the public interest group engaged in a major beef with Attorney General Jerry Brown's office, has posted transcripts of the now-famous secret recordings made by Scott Gerber, former press secretary to the AG.
The Calbuzz Archival Research & Rosemary Woods Memorial Tape Transcription Department has been poring over the contents of the just-released recordings, and has come to the following conclusions:
1. Brown's Chief Deputy Attorney General has some 'splainin' to do.
2. Brown has a fabulous career ahead of him as a public relations consultant or media critic, if this whole governor thing doesn't work out.
3. Audrey Cooper, the Chronicle's metro editor, ain't exactly Lois Lane.
In response to half-a-dozen Public Acts Record requests, including Consumer Watchdog's, Brown's office Monday publicly produced transcripts of recordings Gerber made of conversations with reporters without their consent, along with other documents.
The recordings came to light at the end of last month, following an email exchange between Gerber and the aforementioned Cooper about a story written by Chronicler Carla Marinucci, focusing on a conflict between the AG's office and Consumer Watchdog over the ballot title and summary of an insurance industry-sponsored initiative. (For those who've been vacationing in Uzbekistan, there's a Calbuzz primer here).
Here are the highlights of the transcripts and emails. A few of the ellipses appear in the transcripts; most of them are ours, marking areas where we've edited for space.
Who knew what and when they knew it
When Gerber resigned last week, he issued a fall-on-his-sword statement saying he was the only one who knew about the recordings, and clearing everyone else in the office. Not quite.
In an Oct. 28 email exchange between Gerber and James Humes, Brown's chief deputy, the press secretary refers an inquiry from Marinucci, about Consumer Watchdog's charges over the disputed ballot initiative, to Deputy Humes.
Humes messages Gerber: "I need her number. Do you want to be on the call?"
Gerber sent the number, along with this: "I'd like to be able to tape it, so we have a record...so yes, but I won't say much, if anything."
After the controversy over the recordings surfaced, Humes issued a statement acknowledging Gerber should not have recorded the calls and strongly suggesting that this was all news to him:
"In the future, Mr. Gerber will ensure that he will not tape any conversation unless all parties agree...Mr. Gerber has informed me that he has a few other recorded conversations with reporters..."
But in the days that followed, Humes told Dane Gillette, the chief assistant attorney general assigned by Brown to investigate the mess, that he "does not recall noting the recording reference at that time."
Really? Given that there wasn't anything else in the email, other than Marinucci's phone number, that's a bit hard to fathom, particularly in light of his previous statements.
Jerry Brown: Press Critic
Some of the more interesting material in the transcripts is drawn from interviews that various reporters had with Brown himself. In speaking to Bob Jabro and Beth Fouhy of the AP, and to Shane Goldmacher of the L.A. Times, Brown repeatedly offered friendly journalistic advice.
Call me if you need more bombast
On April 7, Bob Jabro of the AP spoke to Brown to get his response to critical comments from attorneys for Howard K. Stern, who had just been charged in connection with the death of Anna Nicole Smith; Stern's lawyers alleged that the AG had pursued the case for craven political reasons. After getting the comment he called for, Jabro struggled to get off the phone with Brown, who kept trying to massage his quotes:
BJ: He says that...he accused you..he said...Jerry Brown has, quote, 'maliciously and viciously labeled Anna a drug addict knowing full well it's legally unsupportable.' It's a little harsher than you normally get from these guys.
JB: He's completely out of line...the accusations of the defense lawyers are just smoke and mirrors instead of responding to the carefully prepared case they now face.
BJ: There's no, I take it there was no smear campaign or anything against Anna Nicole involved in this thing?
JB: Anna Nicole's dead from multiple chemicals put into her body, that's the tragedy and for the defense lawyers to try and exploit that for their own purposes is shocking and shocking...shocking (sic).
BJ: Sir, thanks. I sure appreciate it. I wanted to touch base because the language is a little out there.
JB: Did I respond enough, do you think? Did I call him a Hollywood lawyer?...
BJ: Anything else, sir?
JB: No, I think. They're a little more inflammatory than I am so they get higher up on the damn story. So I gotta say something like "shocking."
BJ: You've been around this job too long!
JB: What should we say? Shocking and...
Gerber: To me it was "smoke and mirrors" was the quote.
BJ: Smoke and mirrors is good, right. Well, thank you sir, I appreciate it.
JB: Play with it and if you need any more rhetorical fusillade, call me, will ya? Because I don't want this to be an unbalanced story. I want equal firepower on both sides.
BJ: Thank you sir, I appreciate it.
Is this a color piece?
On April 9, AP national political writer Beth Fouhy did a long interview with Brown for a profile piece looking at his plan to run for governor. Fouhy did a great job of drawing Brown out on a number of political matters*; when she started to wind up the interview, however, he began interviewing her about the piece she planned to write, suggesting she focus on what he regards as the bogus issue of his age, which at the time was being raised by Gavin Newsom, who later quit the race.
BF: Okay I think I have enough here.
JB: Now, is this a color piece or is this a substantive piece?
BF: Well, I'm hoping it's a substantive piece. It's a profile.
JB: A profile? Well these are all ideas.
BF: It's going to be an interview/profile. My thought on this is that people in California...are very aware that you are likely to run for governor again but perhaps that's not known to a national audience...That's the kind of piece I'm looking at.
JB: Right, I think that age thing is worth you doing a little something on because I think it's rather empty. That's why I try and draw it out in a statement...
"You're a power player"
On Oct. 7, Shane Goldmacher of the LA Times had a sit-down with Brown about a piece focusing on corporate contributions the attorney general had solicited for two charter schools in Oakland that he started while mayor of that city.
In the interview, Brown is very combative in challenging what he sees as the thesis of Goldmacher's reporting - that the contributions could be perceived as influencing his duties as attorney general. At one point, Brown delivers a little lecture on the power of the press.
SG: "When you ran for president in 1992 you had a different view about (contribution) limits and it wasn't the law it was a self-imposed limit...But at the same time, at that point you were...
JB: "That's the luxury you have! I can tell you're a nice middle-class kid, you're not in the ghetto. Do you know they have murders in the state...this is not bullshit. This is life and death! I think you ought to be aware of that. I understand your point. It's a legitimate point that you're raising questions. You can raise questions about everything we do, who we meet with...but the editorial board has influence too...Make your point, I want to hear your point.
SG: It was actually just a question...
JB: This (the contributions to charter schools) is charity. You need it...The charity is legal. The Sacramento Bee wants to impose...the L.A. Times wants a different standard, go lobby for it. You've got to lobby for stuff. There's a newspaper association, you pay somebody through your dues. You're lobbying up there because you fight these open records acts...
SG: These are people who have an interest in changing a government and have an interest in knowing that you're currently ahead in the polls and making you want to answer their phone calls. I mean, doesn't it, if he gives you a million dollars?
JB: That's silly!...You're a power player, too! You're part of the elite. You get your phone calls answered...It's not about the money. Why don't you take your corruption. You intimidate - you have the power of a story. That makes me want to curry your favor...
Gerber: Shane, does that do it for you or do you need more?"
I've got to get home for dinner
The documents don't shed much new light on the Chronicle story that set off the whole controversy, except for an email exchange between Gerber, who was unhappy with the story Marinucci posted on the paper's web site, and her editor, Audrey Cooper. The Gerber-Cooper emails not only suggest that Cooper blinked the minute that Gerber said "boo," pulling Marinucci's story down off the web, but also show her burning desire to get home for dinner, if she could just get this bothersome story about corruption charges aimed at the attorney general of California off her plate.
Gerber (6:38 pm): Audrey, thanks for your time. As you'll see in this rough transcript, Jim (Humes) spent a lot of time going through why there was a difference in title and summary, and why our summary was fair and accurate. As we discussed, I hope that this can be reflected in the story, and be given the appropriate context.
Cooper (7:03 pm): I think the decision right now is that we need to hold this story because, frankly, I don't like overruling an editor and talented reporter by adding to the story. But I'm also not (sic) thinking it's more headache than it's worth right now. So we'll do this again tomorrow, I suppose. Good night.
Gerber (7:32): Thanks. We'll talk in the am then.
Cooper (7:36): Change of plans. Maybe. Carla and her editor have been reached. They think they can improve the story and still get it to run. I'm confident they will do so...I'm leaving the office since I have 10 people waiting for me at home to cook them dinner. I have a blackberry, feel free to use it.
Gerber (8:02): Well that's a surprise. I had hoped we could work through the substantive issues tmmrw (sic)...
For Gerber, there weren't too many tomorrows left. After the Chronicle reported on his previously undisclosed recordings a day later, he attached their story to an early morning email sent to his staff:
Let's talk early about what, if anything, this means...
*P.S. - And another thing: Brown's feud with the Clintons has been well-documented, here and elsewhere, but he really took off on Hillary during his interview with Fouhy. Asked about the equivalency Newsom at that point was trying to draw between his challenge to Brown and the Obama-Hillary Clinton race, the attorney general said:
JB: That's all Newsom. He thinks I'm Hillary and he's Obama. But it's different because I've been in office. I've been a candidate, she wasn't, she was more derivative. I've done things...
BF: I think you made a really good point. Hillary had never been a candidate.
JB: She doesn't have the scope. She didn't work with Mother Theresa. She didn't spend six months working in a Zen Buddhism (sic). She didn't take Linda Ronstadt to Africa. She didn't have her own astronaut. I had Rusty (Schweickart), an astronaut. I put him on the state energy commission. There is a certain texture to who I am and it's unique, so I don't know how you compare it...
But enough about me -- what do you think about me?
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