Loren McCannon stands, faces the frigid autumn wind blowing across the border at Otay Mesa, and sees the ghosts of crimes past. McCannon, now 75, suffering from diabetes, and survivor of a heart attack, can picture them as vividly as if it were 20 years ago, when he went in search of the secrets of San Diego's border.
A self-described Mafia hunter, McCannon says he risked death, saw others disappear, and watched as his stories of municipal corruption were hushed up, then buried by local editors and the U.S. Attorney. Many of the players are dead, but McCannon and his version of history live on, thanks to a yellowing manuscript he has kept locked in the closet for more than two decades. The manuscript is a road map to the deals done along the border and the people who did them during the beginning years of the Otay Mesa land boom. Except it's not all history. Not yet.
McCannon is back on the border beat at the invitation of a reporter. San Diego mayor Susan Golding, the Union-Tribune, and former U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin (now city schools superintendent and himself an owner of border-area property) are pushing a new project in San Ysidro. It's called the International Gateway of the Americas, and a developer by the name of Carmine Samuel Marasco III is trumpeting his plan to build a $192 million shopping mall, convention center, hotel, and a pedestrian toll-bridge to cross the border into Tijuana's Zona Norte, the city's red-light district.
Marasco and his backers on the city council and at the Union-Tribune say the city-subsidized project would serve the public good by bringing commerce to the border neighborhood where the project would be built, creating an attractive, "world-class" entry to Mexico. The arrangement between Marasco and the city has been in the works for at least a year. No other developers were asked to bid on the project, and the city council only held two public hearings before granting its approval. Amid the usual round of self-congratulatory speeches that accompany the unveiling of such deals between friends, a unanimous city council voted in May to award Marasco a subsidy of more than $20 million and exclusive development rights to 80 acres just west of the current San Ysidro border crossing.
Critics, including residents of a Mexican neighborhood that could be bulldozed, say it's another boondoggle forced on them by the city council that has given away millions of dollars to wealthy campaign contributors like Chargers owner Alex Spanos. Others ask how it was that Marasco, a one-time partner with Ron Hahn -- son of the late developer Ernest Hahn, darling of San Diego's downtown establishment -- was handed a fat subsidy, favorable city zoning, and development rights to prime border real estate he doesn't own.
Most of the property, now strewn with weeds and trash, belongs to partnerships and small corporations controlled by the family of 79-year-old N. Joseph Simons. Simons is a familiar name to Loren McCannon. In his small apartment, out of the biting wind of the border, his aging cat by his side, McCannon smiles and pulls a tattered newspaper clip out of the three-ring binder that holds his 400-page manuscript, entitled "The Monster Project." The year was 1978, and there were a lot of headlines about Joe Simons, thanks to Loren McCannon. "Officials, Border Speculation Linked," reads the headline in a Union clip dated April 6, 1978. "A land syndicate put together by a free-wheeling, fast-talking San Diego businessman named N. Joseph Simons has virtually sewed up the commercial real estate next to the Mexican border in San Ysidro," says the story under the byline of John Standefer. "Simons's group, whose investors include two city planning commissioners and the chairman of the Board of Zoning Appeals, has acquired millions of dollars of land, most of it during the last six years."
McCannon pulls out another old Xerox copy, this one from the Los Angeles Times, dated September 24, 1978: "Simons, who has a penchant for partnerships, persuaded a group of people to join him in land ventures in 1974 and 1975. Among the partners in his San Ysidro land were San Diego Planning Commissioners Oscar Padilla and Homer Delawie. Also joining Simons in two partnerships was city Zoning Appeals Board chairman Alfonzo Macy. It was these partnerships that attracted the interest of the FBI in San Diego. At least one agent has been investigating San Ysidro land deals for the past four months."
The Union story said that while all three men "generally have abstained from votes on specific property questions involving themselves or their partners, Padilla and Delawie have voted on at least two major land use proposals that affect all border area property, including land in which they have an interest."
The Union's Standefer went on to describe other alleged conflicts of interest, votes made by Padilla and Delawie that had a potentially beneficial affect on their property interests, though city officials were quick to play down the scandal. "City Attorney John Witt has been aware of the commissioners' land interests for several months, but said he has not seen any evidence of illegal conflict of interest. However, he said it is his personal opinion that no one on a commission or board should have holdings that could raise even a suggestion of a conflict."
The commissioners were quick to distance themselves from Simons, their partner on the borderline. Delawie, a well-connected architect who had backed then-mayor Pete Wilson, told the Union that he knew " 'very little' about Simons and virtually nothing about Simons's plans for the border properties. 'I'm just a five percenter.' " Padilla, a border insurance broker and a close friend and former campaign treasurer of Wilson's, later told San Diego Magazine, "I didn't even know Joe Simons, but got into the partnership only because others who were friends and had good reputations in the community were already involved."
John Gray, Simons's lawyer and another of his partners in the San Ysidro land, described Simons as "thoroughly reputable." "Joe made the market" in San Ysidro land, Gray explained to the Los Angeles Times. "He got enthused about it and he paid too much for it. He is a guy who was in the drugstore business. He got excited about this property.... Joe sank everything he had into San Ysidro real estate." Simons told a Union reporter, "he would not discuss his real estate dealings except to express enthusiasm for the border area. 'I don't know you from Adam, but if you've got any money and you want to make money, you ought to buy land down there.' " The mystery was heightened when Simons described himself as "just a cottonpicker from Texas. I talk like a damn Yankee only because I went to a damn Yankee school," and said he'd been investing in property along the U.S.-Mexican border for 35 years.