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Here’s what I suspect happened leading up to yesterday afternoon’s big disclosure that a process server asserts that he was told that Julio Perez does not live at his stated residence in Santa Ana:
Someone on some rival campaign, or maybe Republicans or establishment Democrats or anti-union hacks, wanted to bring to public attention a default judgment against Perez that may or may not have anything behind it. (These things happen — and while these things generally bear explanation, they are not always sinister, especially in this economy.) So this person (let’s say it’s just one person, for convenience) contacts Brian Joseph, Sacramento correspondent for The Register. (That it would go to the Sacramento reporter rather than a local may be significant — or may be a way to cover tracks.) They deliver either a neatly constructed package of information for a hit job on Perez or an Ikea-worthy kit to build one.
What’s in the kit?
– A default judgment against Perez for a credit card debt.
– A new complaint against Perez from the same controversial company for credit card debt.
– A sworn statement by a process server that he couldn’t find Perez in the house where he supposedly lived, and that he was told by a woman who lived in the house that no one by that name lived there.
– Perez’s sworn declaration to the Registrar of Voters that he lives in the house.
And then I imagine that person having a fine cigar, knowing what would come next. Everyone, apparently, could figure out what would come next — and why it might be horribly unfair — except for Brian Joseph.
The Register’s story comes out at about 2 p.m. A vigorous comments section, in which I participated vigorously, ensued. (Interests declared: I’m a Perez supporter, a Democratic candidate for office myself, part of the county party’s official machinery, for which I do not speak, etc.) Brian Joseph explains that he’s not asserting anything untoward — he’s just asking questions given a clash of sworn statements. But the damage is done. Shrill anti-Perez hack blogger Art Pedroza puts up the information on two blogs. The Voice of OC — supposedly a union outlet, with Perez the general choice of OC unions — follows suit. The rumor foes into the county’s political atmosphere — and no amount of explanation will undo the initial impression it leaves. That, after all, was the point!
Now, I don’t say that it was Mr. Joseph’s point. He may simply, as you see him say, be looking for a good story. The problem arises when a reporter is completely diffident towards letting himself be used for the purposes of political assassination. (Well, that’s one problem — another is if one’s amenability towards being used in this fashion is selective. Lots of accusations — admittedly not usually sworn, but often from more local and informed sources than a beleaguered process server — get thrown around all the time without inviting comment and republication from the county’s establishment newspaper. (Read Pedroza and various commenters on the goings-on in Tom Daly’s office, to take one example, which I don’t cover here because I don’t really want to spend my days seeing whether certain political hires are actually doing full days’ of work for the county.)
But let’s take a look at this hit job and see if we find anything of interest.
The first thing that struck me is the omission of a document from the “packet”: the initial complaint that led to the default judgment against Perez and the initial service of process and declaration accompanying it.
Why does this matter? For one thing, part of the story (someone notify Mr. Joseph) is whether the initial complaint is legitimate or bogus. People get sued all of the time, with or without good grounds, as in effect a negotiating tactic. Joseph says that Perez “confirmed that Midland had won a judgement against him in 2011,” but that’s not the most critical part of the story. It was a default judgment, apparently uncontested by Perez. One reason one might not contest a suit is because one knows that not only is the suit (in this case, by a company that buys old debt) groundless, but that for various reasons they would never be able to collect on the judgment.
Of course, there’s another possible reason that Perez might know that there was a default judgment against him without his having fought it: it may be that he was not actually served process for the initial suit, that whoever served process either lied or evaded this (say, by serving someone else who he got to say that he lived in the residence), and that Perez didn’t find out about the judgment until after it happened. I don’t know; I haven’t spoken to Perez about it. My interest here is whether Joseph asked reasonable questions before “going live.”
One other reason that I’d like to see the declaration of the process server for the first case is that it may be that it was served after Perez moved into Santa Ana — perhaps to the very same address — which would largely undermine the point of the story. I’m not saying that that’s what happened; I’m saying that the possibility makes the omission of that documentation from the packet prepared for Mr. Joseph a but suspicious.
Now, Mr. Joseph is right about one thing, even if the first lawsuit was served to the same address where Perez swears that he lives: there’s still a story here. Someone is apparently lying — either Perez (despite the presence of another named commenter on the Total Buzz story who says that he has visited Perez at that very address), or the process server, or the woman named “Yolanda Estrada” whom the process server said told him that Perez doesn’t live there and she’s never heard of the guy. (Actually, someone might not have been lying, but mistaken, but let’s give Mr. Joseph his best argument here for now.)
What is that “big story”? It’s as big a story as the possibility that a process server, tired after his fifth visit to a house many miles away, got tired of looking for the resident (busily off campaigning) and instead made up a story about running into a resident of the house who said that the person to be served didn’t live there. (What, a process server might have lied under oath? Pull out the fainting couch and get the smelling salts! Not for me, for Mr. Joseph.) That is, we can agree, not so much of a story. Or the “big story” could be that Yolanda Estrada, who was not under oath, was there but simply did not tell the process server the truth. (A resident of a Latino neighborhood lying to a process server, perhaps thinking that she’s helping out a friend? MORE SMELLING SALTS!)
Here’s an incomplete list of things that could render the “process serving” aspect of this story benign:
– a typo in one of at least two documents
– process server went to the wrong house and didn’t realize it
– process server went to the wrong house and when realizing it didn’t want to admit it
– perhaps there’s more than one similar address or a back house on the lot
– process server went out four times and decided to make up a story about “Yolanda Estrada” rather than going out a fifth time
– process server never went out at all and law firm (having gotten what it wanted) doesn’t check too closely
– process server did go out and talk to Yolanda Estrada, but she doesn’t live there (checkable, right?)
– process server talked to Yolanda Estrada, but she decided to throw him off the track — perhaps to protect someone, perhaps out of general disdain for legal process
– hallucinations, insanity, space aliens, time paradoxes — not all that likely
Bearing in mind that this story may turn out to be as small as a poor little process server losing his job because he lied under oath (perhaps because it’s what his company expects of him? I have no idea), Mr. Joseph was certainly entitled to pursue it. Here’s what he could have done: contacted the process server and asked for a description of Yolanda Estrada. Used the reverse-lookup directory and contacted other neighbors in the area to see if they knew either Estrada or Perez. Or — and I know this sounds crazy — have someone visit the house (after all, they have the address) and see whether Perez lives there.
What’s the benefit of this? Well, it would spare a candidate from what may be a damaging, yet baseless, accusation. (People will continue to believe an accusation even if it’s disproven because they’ve formed a mental association between a person and the supposed misdeed.) And this was pretty easy to check. Hey, take a look at these lines from the story:
Perez said that he sometimes receives mail for a Yolanda Estrada at his home, but added that he doesn’t know who she is.
“I’m assuming she’s a former tenant,” he said.
Perez was adamant that he lives at the home on North Baker Street, saying that he’s lived there for some time and that he’s having a barbeque fundraiser there on Sunday.
He’s having a fundraiser there on Sunday! An opportunity to … check the story out! An opportunity to talk to Yolanda Estrada, if she lives there, which if she’s really a “former tenant” then she probably doesn’t.
Mr. Joseph, though, apparently thought that checking out the story was worth rushing ahead with, because the candidate may be lying under oath! Or the process server was. (Or Yolanda Estrada, who wasn’t under oath. Or it was one of various possible mistakes.) Yet the story is still VERY IMPORTANT (possibly), as Mr. Joseph reminds us that:
In 2010, both Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon and State Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood, were indicted on allegations that they lived outside of the districts they were elected to represent. Both cases are still pending with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office.
Inexplicably, Joseph offers no instances of the other main possibility — that a process server lied under oath about not being able to find someone, perhaps because having put in a fair amount of time looking he just gave up and wanted to “close the case.” Remember, that possibility is an equally big story (right?)
Why did Joseph do this? Here’s my speculation: he knew that the main point of the exercise was to get out the story that Perez was sued — without checking to see whether it was a meritorious suit — for credit card debt. That, and not the residency story (which my bet is will be disproven by Sunday at the latest), was the point of this neat little attempt at character assassination.
If that is what happened, and Joseph was not himself a willing tool of the character assassin, then he was an unwitting one. (All the more so if my speculations about the initial suit possibly being bogus are correct.) As a journalist, it should upset him to be used in such a way. Is a source who does that worth keeping? Or does that source then become the story — one of political intrigue, one worth writing?
I wonder: who prepared the package of information for Joseph? If it was highly misleading, will he make up the cost of Perez having his name wrongly dragged through the mud by burning his source?
I suppose that one could always ask — just as one could always expect better from a journalist than “here’s a very damaging allegation against a politician, so I’ll circulate it and why don’t you readers check it out for me?”