Open mikes have more than once embarrassed loose-lipped politicians–catching President Clinton in 1992 trashing political ally Jesse Jackson, and former President Ronald Reagan in 1984 joking that, “We begin bombing Russia in five minutes.”

On Thursday, however, it was a group of pro-bilingual education lobbyists who wound up scrambling to explain themselves after, unbeknownst to them, a state Capitol squawk box allowed legislators and their staffers to listen in on the lobbyists’ private strategy session.

The topic of the discussion was a bill by Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos) to overhaul bilingual education in the state by granting school districts broad flexibility in how they teach the state’s 1.2 million students who are not fluent in English.

Although tough negotiations over the last five months have brought the various interest groups close to an agreement on the bill, some key differences remain, and legislators and staffers met with the lobbyists Thursday morning to try to iron them out.

But after the meeting, the lobbyists continued what they thought was a private discussion of tactics, which included complaints that, unless changed, the bill deserved to die.

Somehow, the room’s intercom, which allows staffers and legislators to listen in on legislative discussions of bills, was left on. And the ensuing controversy threatens to undo months of delicate negotiations.

“What the lobbyists’ comments revealed was that they were not interested in anything. . . . That they just want to kill the bill,” said Firestone, who has made reforming bilingual education a top priority this year.

The conversation, during which lobbyists were heard angrily denouncing the bill, demonstrated that bilingual education proponents have not been bargaining in good faith, Firestone said.

“I thought we needed reform and now that I witness that those who are carrying out the program have no interest in reform, I know we need reform,” he said.

Jack Maladanof, a lobbyist for the California Assn. of Bilingual Education, acknowledged that “there was a discussion that, if these things don’t get fixed, how do we kill this thing.”

But other lobbyists said the private session revealed nothing that had not been said to proponents of the bill.

“I ended the earlier meeting saying, ‘To this point, all we’ve done is taken the most onerous provisions and made a horrible bill into simply a bad bill,’ ” said Benjamin Lopez, a lobbyist for the bilingual coalition.

And several lobbyists said that despite the embarrassing tactical error, they intend to continue working with Firestone and hope that this does not derail the bill.

“I absolutely know we have bargained in good faith with these people,” said Cindy Katz, a lobbyist who represents teachers of English as a second language. “Unfortunately, they eavesdropped on a conversation and misconstrued what went on there.”

Many attempts to reform bilingual education have foundered because of the disagreements between those who want children taught in their native language and those who favor more English instruction. With pressure mounting to improve services for the growing numbers of children who do not speak English, Firestone’s bill had been given a better chance than most of winning passage.

But the episode Thursday showed that emotions and frustration still run high.

Firestone said he does not plan to give up on reform, and lobbyists such as Deborah Escobedo do not intend to back down either.

Escobedo, a San Francisco attorney who represents parents and children in lawsuits demanding bilingual education, was adamant in Thursday’s overheard session that the bill should be killed.

“All they want to do is eliminate bilingual education,” she said later. “I made my views very clear.”

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