Activist and political consultant Richard Salzman liked to sound off about
his causes in letters to the editors of Eureka-area newspapers. Other local
residents, like R. Trent Williams, Dick Wyatt, and R. Johnson, often backed
him up, praising Salzman’s points and echoing his jabs at political foes.
Salzman made a name for himself last year by helping Humboldt County
District Attorney Paul Gallegos defeat a recall attempt backed by the timber
industry. Salzman also worked on other successful campaigns in the area.
But his star quickly dimmed when a newspaper revealed that all of those
like-minded letters penned over several months actually came from Salzman
himself. Now, he’s under investigation by local authorities and could face
criminal charges for violating a state law that makes it a misdemeanor to
send phony letters to newspapers.
Some of California’s top experts in media law said they couldn’t recall
anyone being prosecuted under the obscure state statute, Penal Code section
“We’ve never heard of any prosecution under this code section,” said Tom
Newton, general counsel at the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
Police searched Salzman’s home last week and seized his computer.
Salzman’s short political career also appears to be over as former clients
publicly distance themselves from him. Gallegos became close friends with
Salzman, a volunteer on his first campaign in 2002, and asked him to run his
campaign to beat the recall. But the two probably won’t work together again.
“There’s a good chance I probably will not be able to use him,” said
Gallegos, a Democrat who expects to run for a second term next year. He said
he hasn’t talked to Salzman since the news of the letters broke.
If police do recommend criminal charges, Gallegos said he’ll recuse his
office from handling the case because of his relationship with Salzman and
instead forward it to state Attorney General Bill Lockyer to avoid a
possible conflict of interest. Lockyer spokesman Nathan Barankin says that
his office hadn’t heard anything about the case.
The March recall attempt against Gallegos was prompted by a lawsuit he filed
against Pacific Lumber Co. in 2003. The suit alleged that the timber giant
defrauded the federal government in a recent land deal. But Humboldt County
stood by Gallegos, with just 40 percent of voters in support of removing the
Salzman’s downfall came when one of his political adversaries tipped North
Coast Journal Editor Hank Sims to one of the pseudonymous letters. Sims
found old electronic copies of the letters and compared their server
addresses with those on Salzman’s letters. They matched. Sims ran a story
Sept. 1, along with a selection of letters believed to have come from
Salzman. The letters defended Gallegos and another former Salzman client,
Eureka Councilman Chris Kerrigan.
Salzman, who did not return calls, sent the letters from Yahoo! mail
accounts, which append a unique Internet Protocol number–such as
188.8.131.52, in Salzman’s case–that identifies the electronic port that
the sender used to connect to the Net.
Salzman denied using fake names when contacted by the Journal, an
alternative weekly, but he later faxed a statement admitting that he sent
the letters, Sims said.
Sims said the Journal “did in fact call the number provided and there was
somebody who said, ‘Yes, I’m R. Trent Williams,’ so it was an elaborate scam
it looks like.” A Journal story about the letters said Salzman submitted
names under as many as four names.
The real R. Trent Williams, a retired sheriff’s deputy, didn’t know his name
was appearing on the letters pages of newspapers, nor did two of the other
people whose names used, according to a Journal story. Dick Wyatt, who knows
Salzman, did allow his name to be used once, but Salzman used it again
without his permission to send another letter.
It was the second letter, attacking Gallegos foe and Fortuna Councilwoman
Debi August, that led the Journal to identify Salzman. Wyatt apologized to
August and told her the Salzman wrote the letter. August, in turn, told her
sister, Rhonda Meehan, an activist who also opposes Gallegos. Meehan then
passed the news to local papers, including the Journal.
One newspaper, the Eureka Reporter, filed a criminal complaint with Police
Chief Ken Thrailkill in Trinidad, a city about 20 miles north of Eureka
that’s home to Salzman and about 300 other residents.
Thrailkill said he obtained a warrant last week and took Salzman’s computer,
which was sent to a forensic lab in the Bay Area. Results won’t be available
for a month or two, Thrailkill said. He wouldn’t say whether he’d asked for
or received any documents from area newspapers.
The Eureka Reporter’s editor, Glenn Franco Simmons, did not return calls,
but he wrote in a recent column that he had turned over unpublished material
to Thrailkill. “I don’t see a problem with turning over e-mailed letters to
the editor to law enforcement if I believe a crime has been committed.”
Charles Winkler, managing editor of the daily Eureka Times Standard, said
his paper handed over published material that Thrailkill requested and
nothing else. “He came over here and politely asked to have the raw emails
from Salzman and R. Trent Williams, and we politely declined to release the
Sims said he’s checking with the Journal’s attorneys about whether the paper
should turn over documents that could incriminate Salzman.
“You don’t want to be seen as an arm of law enforcement,” said Sims, who
became editor in May after three years as a reporter.
Humboldt County Supervisor Jill Geist, who used Salzman as a volunteer on
her first campaign in 2002, said Salzman was an energitic worker who could
make things happen but in a style that sometimes turned combative.
“He has the belief and the charisma to inspire people, and he crossed the
line when he pushed himself out before the cause or the candidate.”