Phones ringing in attack on Pombo

WASHINGTON — The environmental group that helped defeat Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, in 2006 is trying an aggressive new tactic in its bid to stop his comeback attempt.

Starting Monday, phones belonging to San Joaquin Valley Republicans began ringing with recorded attack messages sent by the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund. The messages call Pombo corrupt. His allies call the tactic an abomination.

"This is dirty, dirty, dirty campaigning," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, said Tuesday.

Dirty or not, the campaigning will grow louder. The two most anticipated fund-raisers in the 19th Congressional District, Pombo and state Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, have been furiously raising money in the district that reaches from Modesto to Fresno via the Sierra Nevada.

Nunes said his ally Pombo raised "about half a million dollars" from Jan. 1 to March 31 and had "several hundred thousand dollars" in available cash at the end of the fund- raising quarter.

Denham campaign consultant Dave Gilliard said Pombo's numbers "sound very close" to what Denham will be reporting.

For tactical reasons, campaigns typically keep official fund-raising numbers private until they must report them. Two other candidates, Fresno City Councilman Larry Westerlund and former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson, have acknowledged that they'll raise less money to start.

The candidates' formal fund- raising accounts being made public April 15 will not include outside group spending. Starting last month, for instance, the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund began airing three weeks' worth of anti-Pombo radio ads.

The costs for the anti-Pombo phone campaign include buying lists of Republican primary voters from the California secretary of state's office, Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund senior director William Lutz explained.

Nunes' chief of staff, Johnny Amaral, was among the Republicans who found the 25-second automated message on his cell phone Monday afternoon. The recorded male voice did not identify himself by name, but he denounced Pombo sternly.

"Pombo was accused of violating federal bribery laws," the message states.

No law enforcement agency or legislative ethics committee accused Pombo of violating federal bribery statutes, or any other laws, during his 14 years in the House of Representatives. He never was identified as a target of a law enforcement investigation.

Lutz said Tuesday that the phone message is referring to a request by a private organization called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The organization in 2006 asked any House member to file a formal complaint about Pombo with the House ethics panel.

The panel, formally called the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, will only accept a complaint formally filed by a House member. In Pombo's case, no such formal complaint apparently ever was filed.

The former chairman of the House Resources Committee and a fervent critic of the Endangered Species Act, Pombo long has clashed with the environmental community. The Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, the Sierra Club and like-minded organizations spent more than $1 million targeting Pombo in 2006.

"Richard Pombo is a tremendous threat to our issues," Lutz said, "so keeping him out of Congress is a huge priority."

Pombo's campaign manager, Tal Eslick, said Tuesday that "our attorneys have been contacted" concerning the latest phone campaign. As a public figure running for office, though, Pombo would have a very hard time challenging even the most overheated campaign rhetoric.

The winner of the June 8 primary is all but certain to become the next representative for the GOP-dominated congressional district.

None of the three other Republican candidates who stand to benefit if Pombo falters appear particularly sympathetic to the Defenders of Wildlife's stated policy goals.