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John Cox subpoena mystery: Who provided debate ticket?

Over the last four California Recall Debates – including last night’s – the potential replacement candidates have answered dozens of questions, but no one on or off stage has yet answered one of the more intriguing inside-politics mysteries that came out of the second debate hosted by the Sacramento Press Club on Aug. 17.

It occurred near the start of the debate when businessman John Cox introduced himself. As Cox tried to quote former candidate Doug Ose’s line from the first debate to “Answer the damn phone!”, Cox was loudly interrupted and, in effect, told to “Pay your damn bills!”

That’s when a process server approached, threw a subpoena on the stage, and yelled “John Cox, you’ve been served, San Diego Superior Court, by order of the judge.” This was captured in a 15-second video clip posted quickly to Twitter by Los Angeles Times staff writer Melody Gutierrez.

Media outlets soon identified the process server as Aman Choudhry from Choudhry Investigative Services. He was hired by political ad consultant Jim Innocenzi as part of a legal dispute between him and Cox over alleged unpaid bills from Cox’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign. But not known then was how the process server got into the closed-door event, which was open only to credentialed media, Sacramento Press Club members, and members of the candidate’s campaigns. The Press Club also said several dozen tickets were purchased by members for invited guests.

For the Press Club, the disruption should be no trivial issue. It interrupted their debate and has potential to cast doubt on the club’s ability to ensure a safe, fair debate setting in the future. Further, a representative with the club later shared, “My understanding is [the process server] obtained a ticket through one of our members.”

This means the member could be a journalist or a non-journalist member (such as perhaps a political consultant). Also unclear is also whether they were a witting or unwitting party to the headline-grabbing interruption.

So was this a bit of campaign skullduggery befitting one of Richard Nixon’s dirty-tricksters? And if a media member were knowingly involved, wouldn’t this represent a serious ethical breach of neutral, detached reporting?

All would seemed serious enough possibilities that one would expect the Press Club to be actively investigating. Reaching out to the Press Club, they initially would not confirm whether they knew who provided the ticket or whether they were actively investigating the situation. Instead they sidestepped the question and suggested contacting Innocenzi to inquire into who gave him the ticket.

Even before receiving this reply, I had already reached out to Innocenzi. I started by first reaching the process server. He shared what the Press Club apparently already knew too: that he had received his ticket from his client Innocenzi. The process server then requested any further questions go through Innocenzi, but several phone and email messages to Innocenzi over a couple days went unreturned.

(Full disclosure: I am a member of the Sacramento Press Club, but did not attend the debate nor provide a ticket to anyone.)

But the trail wasn’t completely cold. A natural party of interest was the Los Angeles Times. They had led coverage of the lawsuit against Cox. Viewing the video also suggested they had advance knowledge that something would happen once John Cox started his opening remarks. Just as Cox starts to speak, Gutierrez’s camera pans into the audience and catches the process server just as he steps forward and addresses Cox.

When I first saw the video, I also assumed Gutierrez had been tipped off given she was responsible for filing a story for the next morning’s Times. Thus it seemed unlikely she had filmed the entire debate and just happened to catch the subpoena moment. So I contacted Gutierrez and her boss Sacramento Bureau Chief for the Times John Myers.

Myers courteously replied by email confirming they “had information that something might occur at the event,” but he made clear the Times sent only Gutierrez to the debate and “didn’t seek access to the event for anyone other than our reporter.” Naturally, he would also not disclose the identity of their tipster (most likely either Innocenzi or Choudhry).

EDITOR’S NOTE 8/20/2021: Several days after this story ran, Innocenzi, emailed Sacto Politico that the Los Angeles Times did not provide him with the ticket, but he did not share additional information about who had.

Additional outreach to other contacts failed to reveal any additional information about which member purchased the ticket, but late yesterday, the Sacramento Press Club sent a statement from its current president Alexei Koseff and vice president Joyce Terhaar. This acknowledged the Press Club knew which member had provided the ticket. They added, “The member is not a journalist and was unaware of the plan to use the ticket to serve John Cox with a subpoena.”

However, they would not provide the member’s name or details about how they were sure this member was unaware how the ticket would be used. After all if the member had provided the ticket directly to Innocenzi, then this explanation doesn’t quite float since inviting any legal opponent of a debate participant inherently risks some kind of provocation or side show happening. And if the unnamed member had passed the ticket onto someone else who in turn passed it along to Innocenzi, an examination of that intermediate chain was necessary. But such transparency was not provided, even on follow-up.

The statement did note the Press Club has successfully hosted many past debates featuring large numbers of the general public without incident. For the Aug. 17 debate, they said “we did take precautions to prevent disruptions, including hiring security.” They also made a fair point that, “It is impossible to predict incidents such as this one.”

But it’s also fair to question the club’s transparency and protecting the identity of a club member. Another fair concern is a press club largely comprises members of the media who hope for and request a certain level of transparency from elected officials and candidates such as those at the Aug. 17 debate. Journalists also request such transparency from other news subjects we cover. This is not always forthcoming, but when a press club fails to not walk this talk when it comes to press club business, this sets a poor precedent.

So with the ticket mystery only deepening, will the identity of the Press Club member who provided the ticket ever be revealed? And in a debate season when Gov. Newsom and a couple well-known Republican candidates refused to participate, has the Sacramento Press Club inadvertently contributed an additional reason for candidates to not participate in future debates? Only time will tell.

A follow-up to this article was published on Aug. 30, 2021. Click here to read.

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