Power struggle

Democratic spokesman threatens legal action against reporter over tell-all book

Steve Maviglio had his hands full this month, disseminating the California Democratic point of view on Secretary of State Kevin Shelley’s resignation. But Maviglio, who serves as deputy chief of staff for Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, also was dealing with a controversy of his own—albeit more privately.

Off the Record, a political tell-all tome by former Dow Jones reporter Jason Leopold, opens with a less-than-flattering portrayal of Maviglio during his time as press secretary for Gray Davis. On January 27, Maviglio’s lawyer sent a letter to Leopold’s publisher, objecting to “defamatory statements” in advance materials promoting the book, a move that now appears to be delaying the book’s launch.

Maviglio’s primary concerns involve the book’s opening chapter, in which Leopold brags about using their friendship to obtain “off the record” information and then going to press with it. In Leopold’s version of the events, he tricked the press secretary into admitting his investment in energy stocks at a time when the Davis administration was negotiating long-term contracts to solve California’s energy crisis.

Leopold then describes an elaborate ruse through which he was able to use politicians, media outlets and the Internet in order to break the story, while still insisting to Maviglio that he hadn’t leaked it. Leopold claims he went to Davis’ Republican opponents, encouraging one to pass along the information to the Los Angeles Times and another to The Sacramento Bee. When Maviglio started getting calls, and it became clear the story was guaranteed to break in the morning papers, Leopold was able to beat them to the “scoop” by putting it on the Dow Jones wire service the evening before.

The Maviglio story touched off considerable controversy as the mainstream press—fueled by Republican Secretary of State Bill Jones’ demands that Maviglio step down—rushed to judgment on what they characterized as an apparent conflict of interest. On August 1, 2001, just days after Leopold’s story hit the wires, The Sacramento Bee furthered the debate with three separate items: A news article, headlined “Maviglio says he won’t quit post,” reported that the Davis spokesman “acknowledged this week that he bought 300 shares of Calpine Corp. stock in June” and pointed out how, just a week earlier, the governor had fired five state power purchasers for owning the same stock. Elsewhere in the same edition, Maviglio was cited as the latest apparent transgression in both a Dan Walters column and a separate editorial called “Davis’ ethical mess.” Other publications pointed out that Maviglio also owned stock in Enron, a company whose role in gaming the California energy market was only beginning to emerge. (Note: A subsequent article by Leopold about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s meeting with Enron chief Ken Lay, along with a follow-up, were published in SN&R.)

Friends or foes: Steve Maviglio is threatening to sue over concerns about writer Jason Leopold’s forthcoming autobiography.

“I was concerned about the perception, but he [Leopold] says I was concerned about breaking the law,” Maviglio told SN&R recently, in regard to the “confidential” conversation recounted in Off the Record. “My Enron investment was made five years before I started working for Gray Davis. So, I obviously wasn’t concerned about breaking the law. It’s all publicly reported. I bought that in ’96.” (As for his Calpine stock, Maviglio apparently was considered too far removed from the negotiating process for it to be an impropriety.)

Although Maviglio was reluctant to discuss Off the Record on the record, he did confirm the veracity and contents of a letter from his attorney, Tyler M. Paetkau, to the Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, demanding they “cease and desist” from publishing statements the lawyer considers defamatory. “The true facts,” writes Paetkau, “are that Mr. Maviglio never discussed with Mr. Leopold any alleged use of alleged ‘inside information,’ and/or that he ‘might have broken’ any law or regulation whatsoever.” The attorney goes on to argue that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the charges and found no violations of law.

Operating as they do in the same specialized milieu, it’s not unusual for the symbiotic relationship between political consultants and journalists to develop into friendships—ersatz or otherwise—that can alternately enhance or impede news coverage.

Off the Record—which is more about Leopold’s early legal troubles, drug addiction, firings and bipolar disorder than it is about Schwarzenegger, Lay or Maviglio—ends up being a critique of the reporter’s own behavior as well as the politicians he has covered.

Ironically enough, Leopold refused to discuss the Maviglio controversy on the record. Interviews focusing on his own troubled past, however, have appeared in the New York Post, where he claims Johnny Depp is considering doing the movie version of his life, and on a Web site devoted to bipolar disorder, in which he’s interviewed by fellow manic-depressive author Andy “Electroboy” Behrman.

Originally scheduled for publication on March 1, Off the Record is still listed on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble’s Web site and other sites, but the publication date has been pushed back until at least April. Maviglio, meanwhile, says he won’t hesitate to take further action should Leopold and his publisher fail to address his concerns. “There are some things in the book that need correction,” said Maviglio matter-of-factly, “and I’m taking appropriate legal action to make sure they are.”