So, at least according to Keen, the Simons land scandal, involving the property that was ultimately to become the site of today's proposed International Gateway project, was a put-up job. "The trigger finger," Keen reported, "apparently belonged to a former San Diego city official named Loren McCannon, a retired Army Reserve lieutenant-colonel who was fired in May 1975 as director of city engineering and development after only ten weeks at that post." Keen then quoted John Lockwood, then an assistant city manager and McCannon's old boss and friend since their days together at city hall, as saying, "McCannon was a different man than when I first knew him. He acted troubled and his behavior was erratic. He seemed paranoid about the Mafia being determined to get rid of him because he was about to blow the whistle on organized crime. We finally had to let him go because his work product was unsatisfactory."
Today McCannon laughs at the way his old friend Lockwood talked about him back then. It wasn't that way at all, he says. His work was as good as ever. It was the city that had changed. "I never even thought about the Mafia, didn't cross my mind, until months after I had been out of that office."
McCannon seemed an unlikely whistleblower. Born in 1923 in Greenwood, Illinois, about 50 miles northwest of Chicago, he came to San Diego in 1941 after his brother, a flight engineer and mechanic for Consolidated Aircraft, was mortally injured in the crash of a B-24 bomber on San Diego Bay. Shortly afterwards, he was offered a job with Consolidated. Having just graduated from high school, he accepted. During the war, he served in the Pacific and seven months during the occupation of Japan. In 1946, he returned to San Diego, getting a degree in business administration. In the early 1950s, he became an administrative analyst in the budget office of the City of San Diego, where he stayed five years before becoming the director of budget and research for the city of Long Beach, then assistant city manager there.
After leaving Long Beach to work two years for a world's fair, which didn't get off the ground, McCannon worked in real estate development before returning to San Diego as director of engineering and development in 1975. He says that Lockwood's version of how he was fired ten weeks later is all wrong. "I had prepared a report recommending that we cancel the contract for the private contractor who was administering the city's leased-housing program." That contractor, McCannon says, had badly mismanaged the program. "I thought it was my responsibility as director for the department to try to do something.
"John supported my work in that report right up to the point I officially submitted it," McCannon remembers. "They hadn't done a damn thing before I got there." But after the report went to higher-ups, "I was called in and asked to resign or be fired, just like that." McCannon alleges that the contractor was being protected by friends on the city council and the city's housing advisory commission. As evidence, he cites the fact that after he was fired and tipped the news media to the alleged corruption he had found, three housing commissioners, including the chairman, resigned, and the contractor bowed out.
During his investigation into the contractor and his connections, McCannon says, he began to dig into real estate transactions in South Bay and along the border. "Among other things, I found these eight interlocking partnerships all headed up by N. Joseph Simons, with a mixture of partners within the partners, and some looked suspicious. The ones that really got my attention were the two city planning commissioners and the zoning appeals board."
Today, McCannon makes no secret of the fact that his South Bay research soon ended up in the hands of the San Diego Union's Vi Murphy. "I was running for county board of supervisors in 1976, and one of the ladies in an audience I was speaking to in Bonita worked for the Border Patrol, and she put me in touch with Vi and set up a meeting for us, and I turned over much of the stuff to Vi, and she took it from there." He disputes Keen's media-plot scenario. "I never thought that Keen ever wrote the article to get me, it was just to clean up Padilla's record. He didn't do it on his own volition," he says darkly.
"I was not in touch with the media when I found these records. I certainly wasn't doing this at the behest of the media. I tried to get somebody to do something, so I went to the FBI and later to the media. I thought a lot of activities were going on that appeared to be suspicious, both to me and to the FBI and the press when it finally got that far." The government's ultimate failure to prosecute, McCannon adds, was "just another cover-up."
McCannon's research didn't stop at the recorder's office. He often went out on field trips to alleged local mafia haunts, accounts of which he included in his 1978 manuscript. "Personal observations which I made at [a Mission Valley] restaurant, over just one weekend during December 1975, will give a clue to the type of meetings which I am sure occur with great frequency in San Diego. The [restaurant] is located in a Mission Valley hotel. The office manager for the hotel is a former San Diego City Councilman...
"Even as a councilman, his private occupation was as 'greeter' for the restaurant. The [restaurant] is the San Diego hangout for organized crime figures, a step down in importance from La Costa. At the time of my observations, I was interested in seeing who was 'out and about.' I can report that Joseph Sepe, a lieutenant of Joseph and Tony Zerilli, the present Detroit Mafia bosses, was there at least Thursday through Saturday. Friday evening 'J.V.' and his wife were visiting from Orange County and stayed at the hotel overnight.