In another city, perhaps, a man who had become a U.S. Attorney and a border booster, who owned land under a large freight-forwarding firm along the border, might have engendered a few questions. But in San Diego, if anyone ever knew about the Bersin situation, no one spoke out or questioned the deal, at least not in public.
The record is clear that Bersin worked diligently as border czar, to the advantage of those who wanted to see the border developed with factories and large projects sure to increase property values.
Wasn't there an appearance of conflict of interest between Bersin's public position as border advocate and his unseen role as a major property owner? Bersin, as is the case with all U.S. Attorneys, was required by law to disclose his financial interests in a document filed at the Attorney General's office in Washington. It is not available over the counter anywhere in San Diego; obtaining it requires writing a letter of request to Washington, a relatively simple matter if one knows the procedure. In any case, nowhere in the reams of print devoted by the Union-Tribune to its new border czar was there even a hint about the Bersin family partnership or its holdings.
In an interview this week, Bersin commented for the first time on his business activities along the border and Otay Terminal.
"It's a partnership in which my wife and I have an interest. I don't know when we made it, but it's something my father-in-law organized. It's a truck -- Consolidated Freight -- transfer point." The Otay property was the first property purchased by the partnership, Bersin said, "that's why it's called the Otay partnership.... And then there were other investments made in other properties. Kearny Mesa is one -- actually two in Kearny Mesa. I guess there's one in Vista. My wife and I invested in the partnership in cash, that's what the investment was." Bersin pointed out that the Otay Mesa purchase was made by Stanley Foster in 1992, "before I was U.S. Attorney."
Bersin's financial disclosure statements filed with the school district and the U.S. Attorney General's office report that his interest in Otay Terminal is in the form of a limited partnership. Told this week that the partnership document recorded in 1996 lists him as a general partner, Bersin said he wasn't sure of his status in the partnership. Recorded mortgage loans to the partnership were also not disclosed, as required by state law.
The Otay Terminal investments have raised questions about Bersin's handling of complaints by whistle-blowers among customs agents, who in 1996 claimed that corruption among officials of the U.S. government was allowing tons of cocaine and other contraband to pour through the border unchecked.
The controversy, covered by the Washington Times, 60 Minutes, and other national media, was allegedly swept under the rug by Bersin, which led the customs agents to claim that the San Diego old boys' network was hard at work. In a story of August 8, 1996, headlined "Customs here cleared of accusations," the Union-Tribune reported that "High-ranking San Diego officials of the U.S. Customs Service were officially cleared yesterday of persistent contentions that they collaborated with drug traffickers at the Mexican border." The story went on to say, "During the probe, more than 80 people were interviewed and hundreds of pages of documents and records were reviewed, Bersin said. In the end, he said, 'There was no sufficient credible basis for pursuing...criminal prosecution of any of the allegations.'
"At a news conference yesterday, Bersin said he was making the unusual move of publicly announcing the end of a secret grand jury probe because former customs inspector Michael Horner had so effectively persuaded the news media to repeatedly report his assertions of widespread agency corruption. 'The investigation, with regard to the allegations made by Mr. Horner and others, that has been reported...is now closed,' Bersin said."
Horner and his fellow whistle-blowers were not convinced. To this day they allege that Bersin conducted a sham investigation, failing to call witnesses before the grand jury, a secret proceeding of which there is no public record.
"He's the border czar," the Union-Tribune quoted Horner as saying. "They want to implement trade with influential people in Mexico, and a lot of those influential people are involved in the narcotics trade."
As border czar, Bersin "enjoyed a broad, if largely symbolic, mandate and a bully pulpit," the Los Angeles Times reported June 28, 1998, shortly after Bersin departed as U.S. Attorney. "Bersin was an aggressive border advocate, officials say, prodding Washington and coaxing a sometimes-fractious array of U.S. agencies into shared action on matters such as reducing waits at the border crossing. Savvy about the media, Bersin often took to the airwaves, appearing regularly on Tijuana radio and television. A favored theme was the shared binational region he called 'San Tijuana.'
"Officials on both sides of the border boast of unprecedented cooperation in regional law enforcement and other matters, in part because of wider latitude granted by the governments of both countries. Also of help was Bersin's budding friendship with the Mexican consul general in San Diego, Luís Herrera-Lasso. The new approach prompted formation of cross-border committees on issues including management of the ports of entry, water supply, and migrant safety."
Six months earlier, in November 1997, the Associated Press reported that Bersin's dual role as U.S. Attorney and border czar was becoming controversial. "Critics say his job as the region's top law enforcement officer on immigration and narcotics conflicts with his role as 'border czar,' in which he encourages greater cooperation between the United States and Mexico in these two areas."
Bersin says his ownership in the Otay Terminal partnership and his role as United States Attorney and border czar posed no conflict of interest. "No, because, first of all, it's fully disclosed, and it had no bearing on -- you know, the requirement is to disclose it. Frankly, none of the decisions I made as a prosecutor were affected by that."