Monday, September 13, 2004
Referee’s E-Mails Touting Campaign Fundraiser Provoke Questions
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
A fundraising e-mail sent by a Los Angeles Superior Court referee to her colleagues on the bench provoked questions from some of them about its appropriateness, the MetNews has learned.
Referee Mildred Escobedo sent the e-mail Wednesday, inviting judges and other bench officers to a fundraiser scheduled for Friday evening. Though it was mailed from a personal—not a court—e-mail account, at least two judges said they received it at their official court e-mail addresses.
Escobedo conceded the e-mail provoked questions from some colleagues, but said Thursday it was “completely within the guidelines of the Hatch Act.” She responded to the queries, however, by sending an e-mail on Thursday apologizing for the earlier contact.
The second e-mail, which bore the salutation “Dear Judicial officers,” stated:
“I apologize for any inconvenience, discomfort or concerns my e-mail communication may have caused you.
“I assure you that I and my team have taken every measure to insure that we are in complete compliance with the Hatch Act. I and my team appreciate, respect and tremendously consider your views and are cognizant of your expressed concerns.”
The Hatch Act is federal legislation governing political activity by federal employees.
The follow-up message also reiterated the invitation, providing a corrected address for the restaurant at which the fundraising event was to be held and citing a favorable review of its cuisine.
Escobedo characterized the responses she received as inquiries, rather than complaints, and said her follow-up message was intended to assure her colleagues that the original contact was appropriate.
“They weren’t aware, so they asked,” she said.
But two other subordinate judicial officers also running for judge said Friday they had been warned by court officials against using e-mail to contact other judicial officers about their campaigns.
Referee Zeke Zeidler said he sent e-mails to about 50 colleagues early on in his race.
Judicial candidates had to declare their intent to run last November, and the primarily voting in March reduced the field to 10 candidates squaring off in five races which will be decided Nov. 2.
Zeidler said he sent messages—which sought endorsements, not money—only to judicial officers whom he knew personally. Even so, he explained, he got some negative reactions and subsequently consulted Superior Court Counsel Fred Bennett about those contacts.
Bennett, Zeidler said, suggested it would be better to avoid using their court e-mail addresses to reach judges. He “was pretty much told that while it’s not prohibited, it’s better to err on the side of caution,” Zeidler said.
“It’s that line in the sand that’s hard to find sometimes,” he added.
His contacts with colleagues about the campaign since then have been by U.S. mail, or in person somewhere other than in the courthouses, the referee said.
Though the format of judges’ court e-mail addresses makes it possible to derive them from a judge’s name in many cases, Zeidler said, he noted that they are “not readily accessible to everyone.”
With U.S. mail, he said, “every candidate has that same form of access.”
Commissioner Donna Groman said she has also avoided making contact with colleagues by e-mail about her campaign. She has been guided, she said, by a memorandum from the court’s presiding judge, Robert Dukes, which was circulated early in the campaign season.
Dukes’ memo, Groman said, advised candidates wishing to contact their colleagues for support to use the U.S. mail.
A court spokesperson said Friday afternoon he was not immediately able to confirm the existence of such a memo, or to provide a copy of it.
Escobedo is running for the seat being vacated by Judge Marcus Tucker. Her opponent, Deputy District Attorney Pat Campbell, did not return a call placed Thursday, and his campaign consultant, Fred Huebscher, declined to comment.
But veteran election law attorney Bradley W. Hertz of Reed & Davidson, who successfully represented Campbell in a bid to prevent Escobedo from using the ballot designation “temporary judge” or “judicial officer” in the primary, said the e-mail contact with judges “raises troubling questions that the electorate might need to consider when casting their vote.”
Even if she sent the messages from a personal account, Hertz opined, if she obtained the e-mail addresses “in her capacity as a commissioner,” their use for campaign purposes might be improper.
Hertz stressed he has not discussed the issue with Campbell and was not speaking on his behalf.
In the litigation between Campbell and Escobedo, Judge David Yaffe also barred Campbell from being designated on the primary ballot as “Criminal Prosecutor/Professor.”
Hal Dash of Cerrell Associates, Inc., which has wide experience running judicial campaigns and represents Zeidler, said he advises incumbents and subordinate judicial officers seeking election to the bench to seek legal counsel before making similar contacts. He tells them to refrain from anything that might be construed as improper, Dash said.
“The answer is, don’t,” he declared.
It was not clear whether Escobedo’s e-mails went to all of the court’s approximately 575 judicial officers, and Escobedo did not return a call seeking further comment.
But her campaign chair, attorney Armando Duron, said Escobedo checked with legal counsel before sending the e-mail and was advised there was no impropriety involved. While other candidates in similar circumstances may have chosen to shy away from such contact, he said, that is a “decision each campaign has to make.”
Duran rejected the suggestion that judges’ e-mail addresses are confidential, though he conceded they are not publicized.
“I don’t know how difficult it is to get those,” he commented. “They’re not secret lists. They’re not restricted lists.”
Bennett was not in his court office Friday, and neither Dukes nor Assistant Presiding Judge William A. MacLaughlin returned calls from the MetNews.
Zeidler is opposed in the Nov. 2 balloting by Deputy District Attorney David Lopez in the race to succeed Judge Rosemary Shumsky, while Groman and Deputy District Attorney Judith L. Meyer are battling for the seat being vacated by Judge James Wright.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company