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Denham seeks criminal probe of Perata actions

Tensions in the recall campaign against state Sen. Jeff Denham rose to new levels Thursday with both sides alleging illegal use of government resources.

It's uncertain whether local or state law enforcement agencies would inject themselves into the controversy -- at least in time to affect the momentum or outcome of the recall campaign.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, sent a memo last week to senators demanding that their staff lend a hand in his recall effort against Denham, R-Merced.

"This is not an optional activity," the Oakland Democrat wrote after some senators' chiefs of staff were a no-show at a planning meeting.

Denham's campaign has called for investigations by the California Attorney General's Office and the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office because of the implied threats and coercion by Perata.

"Senator Perata has not only continued on with a track record of bad judgment," Denham said, "but continued on with an abuse of power."

The District 12 senator was targeted for a recall last summer by Perata and the Democratic Party because of his vote against the last state budget.

Critics argued that his "No" vote meant he wasn't supporting school funding while opposing upgrades to highways.

Supporters, citing the bloated budget deficit, argue that his stance was rational and prescient.

If he's removed from office and challenger Monterey County Supervisor Simon Salinas is elected, Democrats will be one vote away from fielding a supermajority in the Senate.

Hours after Denham's camp announced its request for a criminal probe, recall backers fired back with an e-mail it intercepted from his campaign manager that was apparently sent to government workers asking that they walk precincts leading up to the June 3 recall vote.

"It goes without saying that the stakes in this recall are high," campaign manager John Franklin wrote to Denham supporters. "If this recall succeeds, there will be others."

The recall backers pointed a finger back at Denham.

"Jeff Denham has stooped to a new low -- using taxpayer's resources to try to help save his political hide," recall proponent Gary Robbins said.

It's common for legislative employees to volunteer their time for campaigns, but it's illegal to have government resources directed toward a political cause or for staff to be forced into helping.

Kevin Spillane, Denham's spokesman, said there are significant differences between the two situations, which can't be compared.

Perata, a powerful leader, sent a demanding letter, whereas it was only Denham's campaign manager who sent a request for volunteers, he said.

"There's an obvious message sent that if people don't cooperate there will be repercussions," Spillane said.

However, Perata spokesman Jason Kinney said the allegations are frivolous and that any investigation would be a waste of taxpayer money.

"In this case, it happens to be a pretty obscene case of political hypocrisy," he said. "It's so shameless it's almost laughable."

He declined to explained what Perata meant by his statement that helping wasn't an optional activity because the memo was an internal communication not meant to be made public.

"(Perata) has a unique way of talking. He's a cut-to- the-chase kind of guy," Kinney said.

The language used, he said, could be interpreted 100 different ways. Denham is trying to have people look at it in the most cynical kind of way.

Denham's anti-recall team also wants an investigation into Polka Consulting, which advises Perata and had an employee request that a Senate employee translate a recall campaign script into Spanish. Law prohibits state employees from getting involved in political causes on taxpayer time.

The employee made an honest mistake, Kinney said, adding that she tried to fix her error immediately.

Besides going to state and Sacramento prosecutors, the complaints will also be forwarded to the Federal Bureau of Investigations in case it relates to its ongoing probe of Perata.

The demand for having legislative staff work on campaigns may violate bribery laws, Spillane asserted, because it's likely that the senators who don't have their staff help out may be stripped of leadership positions.

As an example, Denham campaign manager John Franklin cited in the complaint, Perata booted state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, from his chairmanship of the Senate environment committee and from the budget committee after he spoke out against Perata's proposed education cuts.

"That's the whole essence (of the recall)," Spillane noted. "He's upset that he wasn't able to bully Denham into voting on the budget."

Reporter Scott Jason

can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.

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