Blowing Smoke, Breathing Fire (Part II)

The Fang family rides tabloid journalism and hardball politics to the winner's circle

As usual, Bill Fazio is frenetic, scattering from one thought to the next, leaving the old thought hanging as if his brain is racing faster than his tongue. But today he's even more excited than usual. Two weeks after his narrow loss to Hallinan in the runoff, Fazio is reviewing the Independent's "Tainted Prosecutor?" series for distortions and factual errors. He sits down at the table and draws a deep breath, as if to say: This is going to take awhile.

The three stories have all the benchmarks of the classic political smear: politically motivated timing (the last story appeared on Election Day), damning facts without their appropriate exonerating context. The Independent has done it before, and it'll probably do it again.

It just goes to show that even in San Francisco, where tolerance and open debate are cherished, you can put the lie to a man's career without any penalty. Tabloid monster Walter Winchell was the master of the smear. After flinging half-truths and lies at his opponents, he would await their detailed replies, to which he would say: Anyone who takes more than five minutes explaining that he's innocent is guilty. It's a tactic the Independent follows. When you're out to destroy someone, pour it on so thick the poor bastard can't breathe.

And that's exactly what they did to Fazio.
The defeated candidate says some of the most glaring distortions occurred in the first article, which alleged that Fazio "had questionable contacts over the years with numerous convicted criminals and their representatives."

Rather than exposing the candidate's ties to criminals, the piece merely revealed the Independent's misunderstanding of an adversarial criminal justice system.

Among the so-called "questionable contacts" was Fazio's relationship with a convicted drug dealer named Victoria Magana. But Magana was a witness in a kidnapping case Fazio had been assigned. Magana's sister and her girlfriend had been abducted by Colombian nationals, and the District Attorney's Office and the FBI were working on the case. What did the Independent expect Fazio to do? Recuse himself because Magana had earlier pleaded guilty to a drug charge? Printing this story under the headline "D.A. Candidate's Underworld Ties" was pure demagoguery. (No other publication in town touched the story.)

The other allegation in the story stemmed from Fazio's work prosecuting Giovanni Toracca, who was accused of gunning down his wife's alleged lover, Francisco Tarsitano. The Independent accused Fazio of arranging an "inordinately" low bail of $250,000. But Fazio insists that the bail was not too low. Moreover, the Independent accused Fazio of being caught on an FBI wiretap phoning Toracca -- a violation of legal ethics -- and encouraging him not to skip bail.

Fazio's version of events differs considerably.
"What happened is I called Toracca because bail had been arranged over the weekend and the Toracca family was not in court," Fazio begins. "It was my understanding that family members had put up property in the case. The case had picked up some publicity, and I didn't want the subject to flee and lose the property. I called with the idea of leaving a message for the mother or the father, but certainly not Toracca himself. I specifically remember to this day Giovanni Toracca saying, 'This is Giovanni Toracca,' and I said, 'I'm not supposed to talk to you' and I hung up. That was the extent of the conversation."

Not according to the Independent. Strupp and Gollin reported that Fazio had been caught on an FBI wiretap telling the homicide defendant "to stay out of trouble" while he was out on bail.

"That is an out-and-out lie," Fazio says. "I can say that with certainty because I was informed by a former U.S. attorney that if a civilian is picked up on a wiretap and they are not the subject of the wiretap, that individual is contacted." Fazio says he was never contacted.

When a jury deadlocked on manslaughter charges and acquitted Toracca of murder, the District Attorney's Office decided not to retry the case. But the Independent blamed the decision not to retry entirely on Fazio, quoting then-Chief Deputy DA Bob Podesta in support of this claim. But what the Independent didn't tell its readers was that Podesta was Arlo Smith's right-hand man. Without that context, the readers were free to impute more credibility to Podesta than was warranted. The simple fact of the matter is that the decision to retry cases is always made by the front office in any district attorney's shop, Fazio says.

In later stories, the Independent transformed minor glitches in cases into ethical catastrophes, laying all the blame on Fazio, even when he wasn't a decision-maker on a case.

The second story, headlined "Fazio's Broken Prosecutions," accused Fazio of "a number of instances in which dangerous criminals were either set free or given light sentences due to Fazio's actions."

The paper savaged Fazio for his work on the Quintin Dailey case. Dailey was a former University of San Francisco basketball star accused in 1982 of sexual assault. Put simply, Strupp and Gollin took a non-starter and turned it into a major scandal, ripping Fazio for striking a plea agreement with Dailey that allowed him to plead guilty to assault and receive no jail time. But what Strupp and Gollin didn't divulge until almost halfway though the story was that the victim herself requested the plea agreement as a way of avoiding a grueling trial.

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