Several times over the course of this mayoral election season, acquaintances approached Yitzchok Bader, a Jewish studies teacher and volunteer for Hatzolah Los Angeles, and said they heard he endorsed Mayor James Hahn.
The problem was, he hadn't.
Bader's name was on an advertisement called "Our Community Leaders Agree! Re-elect Mayor Jim Hahn," which appeared in The Jewish Journal just prior to the March 8 primary election. But Bader said he never gave permission to the Hahn campaign or its supporters to use his name.
"I have no understanding why in the world he put my name there," he said. "I was not asked and I did not endorse [Hahn]."
A growing number of Jewish community members are saying that Hahn's re-election campaign falsely claimed them as endorsers in that ad. Among these, four individuals insisted that their signatures had been forged after reviewing signed endorsement forms that the Hahn campaign provided to The Journal to justify the names on their advertisement.
Two types of accusations have surfaced, one that the Hahn campaign used names without permission and, separately, that individual's names were forged on endorsement documents. Hahn's campaign actually provided signed endorsement forms to The Journal for seven individuals in response to initial allegations that no permission had been given. The Journal reached four of the seven, and all of them called the endorsement forms forgeries. The forgery allegations were made by Rabbi Steven Weil of Temple Beth Jacob; Irving Lebovics, chairman of the Orthodox group Agudath Israel of California; Michael Rosenberg, president of the Hancock Park Residents Association; and developer Ira Smedra. Bader, the Jewish studies teacher, hasn't seen his alleged permission form, but insists he gave no permission.
These prominent, respected members of the local Jewish community are just the sort of supporters the Hahn campaign would seek, especially during a tough reelection bid in which one of Hahn's challengers was Jewish.
That challenger, Bob Hertzberg, just barely finished behind Hahn last week, meaning Hahn will face L.A. City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa in the May runoff. Hertzberg claimed strong Jewish support last week, but it was far from unanimous, and Hahn's Jewish endorsements could have meant a lot to his campaign.
After the initial endorsement ad appeared in The Journal, six of the people mentioned in the ad wrote a letter of complaint to Hahn. The mayor's campaign denied any ill intent and told The Journal that the controversy over Hahn's endorser list was limited to the six people who complained, and that the campaign was holding signed permission forms for all the people on the ad. It was when the campaign provided some of those permission forms that the forgeries were uncovered.
But the problem goes deeper than these six people who signed the letter of protest.
More questionable endorsements are turning up, such as that of Jewish studies teacher Bader.
One of the confirmed forgeries is from one of the city's leading developers, Smedra, someone who did not sign the letter of complaint.
"Not my signature," Smedra told The Journal when he saw the form on which his purported signature appeared. "I have no idea who signed this. This isn't even close."
Hahn consultant Kam Kuwata denied any wrongdoing on the part of the campaign: "No one in the Hahn campaign would ever in this case or any other case forge documents."
The Hahn campaign accounts for the forms by linking them to yet another mainstay of the civic and Jewish elite, businessman Joseph Klein, who died in June 2004. Kuwata said all the dubious forms were supplied by Klein, either by fax or in person. At the same time, Kuwata is quick to defend Klein's honor.
"This campaign has unlimited respect and admiration and trust in Joe Klein," Kuwata said. "If Joe Klein said something, that's gospel truth."
Until recent times, Klein was one of most powerful appointed officials in city government. He headed the Planning Commission as a Hahn appointee. He also was a leader within the Orthodox Jewish community, and an unabashedly enthusiastic Hahn supporter.
Klein, of course, isn't around to defend his honor, but his friends are, including the ones who are angry about the endorsements. They are quick to praise Klein for honesty, compassion and impeccable ethics.
"Joe Klein [was] my good friend," Weil said. "He never gave me anything to sign. He was a good man, a man of integrity. He didn't do stuff like this."
Bader, who also knew Klein, agreed. Asked whether Klein mentioned any endorsement forms during 2003 or 2004, the time period when the forms most likely originated, Bader said without hesitation: "No. Not once."
"He was a very upstanding person," said Stanley Treitel, Klein's brother-in-law. "He would never [forge documents]. That I can tell you for sure."
The reaction of Weil was typical of those who reviewed the endorsement forms.
"I am telling you that is a forgery," he said. "That's not the way I sign." To back up his assertion, Weil brought in three colleagues at the synagogue who "have seen me sign my name 1,000 times."
The letterhead on all the forms is "Jim Hahn for Mayor 2005," but they are all undated, meaning they could have been supplied at any point after Hahn's first election in 2001.
One clue, however, suggests a much more recent vintage. That clue is a fax number that appears on the forms. Kuwata said this number first was used in connection with the Hahn re-election campaign in mid-2003. Assuming these forms were not altered after their initial creation, this fax number would mean the forms were created in mid-2003 at the earliest.
Klein's connection to the Hahn campaign was strictly as a volunteer, friend and donor.
From 2000 to 2003, Klein contributed $10,000 to various Hahn-related causes including Hahn's 2001 mayoral bid, Hahn's legal defense fund and his 2005 re-election bid. Klein's business interests included real estate and elder care, but friends also note that he was obsessed with local government, its relevance and its importance.
Close friend Michael Rosenberg said Klein was admitted to a hospital in March 2004 and died three months later. That means Klein would have supplied the forms between mid-2003 and his hospitalization in March 2004.
Smedra and Weil say they are certain that Klein, whom they also termed a close friend, never mentioned anything to them during this period about collecting or delivering signatures for Hahn's 2005 mayoral bid.
"The only time he ever asked me for anything for Jim Hahn was when he first ran four years ago," said Smedra. Smedra added that he saw Klein "all the time" in 2003 and early 2004 and can't remember him ever discussing endorsement forms.
Klein was especially sensitive about behavior that could be judged unethical, said another friend, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt noted that Klein, a Holocaust survivor and immigrant from Czechoslovakia, often tried to help people or synagogues deal with city government.
"And none of it was in any way underhanded. He was hyperconscious that if something unsavory was done by someone Jewish, that it would be blamed on the entire Jewish people," Rosenblatt said.
Like other friends, Rosenblatt only remembers Klein's involvement with Hahn's 2001 campaign.
Some members of Klein's circle suggest that the Hahn campaign is trying to pass off responsibility for the forgeries on a good man who isn't around to say otherwise. They note that Klein would be a convenient scapegoat if one or more Hahn staffers actually created the false forms to cover their missteps after questions arose about suspect endorsements.
Names in Two Places
The furor began when a Hertzberg supporter happened to see the pro-Hahn ad and called Hertzberg outreach staffer Adeena Bleich. Why wasn't Hertzberg also proclaiming his Jewish support in the press, the caller wanted to know.
When Bleich looked at the ad, she saw a list peppered with people she believed to be Hertzberg supporters.
"So I just started calling them and said, 'Do you know that your name is listed [for Hahn]?'" Bleich told The Journal. "'Should I take you off our Web site?'"
It was after Bleich pointed out their names that six of those listed decided to send a letter of complaint to Hahn. The six were Weil, Rosenberg, Lebovics, Rabbi Avraham Weiner, Aaron Litenansky and Walter Feinblum.
Shortly thereafter, the Hahn campaign provided The Journal with the endorsement permission documents, including the forms for all six letter writers. The forms specifically gave the Hahn campaign permission to "Use my name on a list of Jewish community leaders for Hahn."
Could the entire imbroglio somehow be a tactic of Hahn's opponents? If so, their timing was poor. The issue was not called to the attention of Journal editors until it was too late to publish a pre-election story. Moreover, Kuwata said he knows Klein provided the forms, and numerous people have vouched for Klein's status as a true-blue friend of the mayor.
For what it's worth, Bleich also knew Klein personally and joined the chorus of commendations. "He was a wonderful, wonderful human being," Bleich said.
Endorsement-Gate, to coin a term, didn't come to light in time to hurt Hahn or help Hertzberg, but it's just one more ethics-related issue that the Hahn campaign has to explain to voters -- in this case Jewish voters. His administration is under investigation for pay-to-play allegations linking political contributions to city contracts. And there's the over-billing by public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard for city-related events that could be viewed as promoting Hahn's political interests on the city's dime. And just last week came new allegations related to Kuwata, Hahn's veteran political adviser. Critics accuse him of improperly failing to register as a lobbyist and also question whether Kuwata's city contract was handled properly. Kuwata and the Hahn administration deny any wrongdoing.
But a series of ethics-related issues could add up to an ethics problem in the minds of voters, and ethics matter to the city's high-propensity Jewish voters.