With the sudden announcement that San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom -- the rival to Attorney General Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown for the Democratic nomination for Governor of California in 2010 -- was dropping out of the race, things might seem pretty smooth for the former governor.

But Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog is taking Brown to task for changing the language of a ballot initiative designed to protect consumers from auto insurance hikes, allegedly at the behest of campaign donor Mercury Insurance.

If that wasn't enough, the San Francisco Chronicle reported today that Brown's spokesman Scott Gerber was taping conversations on the matter between himself and Chronicle reporter Carla Marinucci without her consent -- a violation of California law. Consumer Watchdog founder Harvey Rosenfeld asked "Who is going to prosecute the spokesman for the state's top cop?"

"Since when does the Attorney General of California try to censor the free press in order to kill a news article about how he took the extraordinary step of rewriting a ballot title about a donor's initiative?," Rosenfeld asked.

The initative in question would enable insurers like Mercury to hike motorists' premiums if they have had a lapse in coverage at any point. Consumer Watchdog contends that the language of the ballot initiative was changed after Mercury Insurance donated $13,000 to Brown's gubernatorial campaign, in order to obscure the potential rate hikes California drivers would face under the new law."

"The people of California deserve to know the consequences of the ballot measures they are voting on," Rosenfeld said. "This new title and summary hides the true impact on people who must stop driving due to these hard economic times or because they choose to stop using their car for other reasons."

"I have rarely seen political cowardice on this level from a seasoned public official," he said.

In conversation with Marinucci over the article discussing Rosenfeld's allegations, Gerber admitted that he had taped their conversation, as well as that of several other reporters. California's penal code strictly prohibits taping private conversations without consent, and the state is one of 12 that requires all involved parties consent to taping any conversation.

Consumer Watchdog has been a frequent foe of Mercury Insurance. In August, the group posted a billboard near downtown Los Angeles proclaiming that "You Can't Trust Mercury Insurance." The billboard display owner, CBS Outdoor, pulled the billboard under pressure from Mercury chairman George Joseph.

Consumer Watchdog claimed breach of contract and threatened to sue if the billboard was not restored.