Don Perata just wanted his gal to get paid. Early in 2006, the state senate leader sent word to Tom Umberg, a three-term Southern California assemblyman who was running for the Senate: Hire Sandi Polka as a campaign consultant and you'll breeze through the June primary. But Umberg declined the offer and it cost him, according to two knowledgeable Sacramento sources. A year later, he was out of politics.
Rather than support Umberg, Perata secretly backed Lou Correa, an Orange County supervisor. Sandra Polka did the dirty work. She was hired by the innocuous-sounding political action committee Californians United which is funded heavily by Perata's top campaign contributors and proceeded to engineer vicious attack ads targeting Umberg. These included two mailers exploiting an extramarital affair the assemblyman had admitted to. The hit pieces, one titled "A Cruel Man," lifted quotes from distraught e-mails Umberg's wife had sent just after she learned of his infidelity.
Umberg claims that Perata asked him to drop out of the race after the mailers were sent. But the former federal prosecutor again refused. So, over the next few months, Californians United and two other PACs associated with Perata spent more than half a million dollars to defeat Umberg in the primary. Correa won in a landslide, and then took the 34th Senate District seat last November.
Over the last year, Perata has quietly involved himself in a number of electoral campaigns in which he seemed to have no political stake indeed, races in which the outcome appeared irrelevant. Why did Perata get involved in the campaign against Umberg? The official reason, according to Perata's supporters, was that Umberg's affair and his liberal politics made him unelectable in conservative Orange County. They also claimed that, if elected, Umberg had planned to back a more liberal senator to unseat the moderate Perata as Senate president pro tem.
But two knowledgeable Sacramento sources claim that Perata had another reason for running his own candidate in the race. It evidently wasn't Umberg's politics or his affair. Instead, they said, the senator's overriding concern was to make sure campaign money was flowing Polka's way. "He sent a message that Umberg should fire Richie Ross," one of the sources said. "And he should hire someone more amenable to him ... such as Sandi Polka."
Perata has issued similar ultimatums to other Democratic legislators, according to two sources unfamiliar with the details of the Perata-Umberg dispute. If the candidate refused to hire Polka, or worked with people Perata didn't approve of, the senator would no longer side with them. Just ask Correa; earlier this year, Perata locked the freshman senator out of his own capitol office because Correa had attended a fund-raiser the boss hadn't authorized.
The common thread uniting most of these cases appears to be Perata's desire to secure consulting business for Sandra Polka. Public records show that political committees associated with the senator paid her $302,379 last year for work on four such legislative primaries, three of which she lost.
Those defeats don't seem to have affected Polka's business. In fact, she has emerged over the past two years as one of the state's highest-paid political consultants, charging some PACs $16,000 a month just to keep her on retainer. In all, campaigns controlled by or associated with Don Perata have paid her at least $1.41 million over the past three years.
Polka and Perata, meanwhile, have become inseparable. Sacramento sources say she won't take a client without the senator's blessing, and that it's common for him to stroll into her office across from the capitol dome two or three times a day. Since the FBI began a federal corruption probe of Perata's financial and professional relationships with his best friend, Tim Staples, and his son, Nick Perata, Sandi Polka has replaced those two men as the senator's main beneficiary. "They're attached at the hip," one knowledgeable source said. "You don't get much tighter than they are."
But the relationship is mysterious: Why would the state's most accomplished backroom politician, a power player who plays to win, cozy up to a small-time political operative with a mediocre track record? And why is he so keen to steer business her way? Neither Polka nor Perata would comment for this story, but this much is certain: Polka owes everything to the senator. It was he, after all, who helped lift the intensely secretive, fiercely loyal sixty-year-old woman out of debt and into a position of wealth and power.
When Sandi Met 'Tony'
Six years ago, when Don Perata first took Sandra Lynn Polka under his wing, she was bankrupt and married to an out-of-work janitor. During the 1990s, according to public records, she and her husband, John Barr, ran up a mountain of debt and fell so far behind on their taxes that in 1995 the IRS placed two liens on their home, totaling more than $47,000. Two years later, a bank sued them for running up their credit card and not paying the bill. In August 1997, they filed for bankruptcy, listing debts of nearly $153,000.
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