In the end, it took the suspicions of the U.S. Attorney’s Office to get the probe rolling and to bring in the FBI, once the feds learned of the 1999 Neon Systems IPO from which Stallings benefited some $9400 in one month.
It appears that the FBI focused its lens on Stallings’s failure to disclose Moores’s gifts, instead of — or far more than — the fact that Moores gave them. Taking Stallings’s plea at face value, it’s hard not to conclude that the chasm between the gift-giver and the gift-receiver is as deep as it is wide.
That chasm is wide by law. The responsibility to disclose gifts falls upon the receiver, not the giver. Deputy City Attorney Lisa A. Foster has been in charge of public policy in the city for two years, primarily advising officials on “conflict-of-interest and gift issues.” She said that according to the California Political Reform Act, the 1996 proposition that regulates how public officials must disclose gifts, “We in the city don’t need to direct the donor to do anything.” Anyone can give gifts, even registered lobbyists. Anyone can receive them. It is neither a crime for the giver to give more gifts than the city official is allowed to receive nor a crime for the giver — unless he or she is a registered lobbyist — not to have reported the gift. If the gift exceeds the limit of $320 from one source per year, the city official must, within 30 days of reception, return it, give it away, or pay the giver for it. Unless we’re talking bribery — which we will momentarily — there is no city ordinance against a donor giving too much.
Deepening the divide is the fact that the ordinances which govern gift-giving and gift-receiving have been rewritten in recent years. After the Padres announced, late in 1996, their desire for a new ballpark, and during the time Moores was giving gifts to Stallings and she was not reporting them, the Municipal Advocacy Ordinance was changed in 1998 to the Municipal Lobbying Ordinance. According to Bonnie Stone, elections analyst and lobbyist liaison in the city clerk’s office, the old ordinance was “not helpful to anyone.” The city clerk’s office would send out reminders to lobbyists, who had identified themselves as such, to report. There was, however, no law that required them to disclose anything. Stone said, “We wanted lobbyists to understand what made them a lobbyist. We clarified the language of the ordinance” to insist on quarterly filing, if the lobbyist qualified.
Most important for Stone is that the 1998 lobbying ordinance upholds the right of citizens “to come in and speak to their representatives.” She said no one in the city clerk’s office wanted to create a “chilling effect” on anyone’s access to city officials, in public or private. Most everyone with whom I spoke cited tensions between preserving the rights of the citizen to petition (and do business with) government and demanding more disclosure from officials as to how they are being lobbied.
Preserved from the old ordinance is one clause in particular: Those who seek influence determine for themselves whether or not they are lobbying. Today lobbyists must register only if they are paid more than $2165 per quarter to lobby. Because of this self-policing by lobbyists, it is rare for anyone to be accused of “lobbying without a license.”
Such was the response — or nonresponse — to Moores’s friendship with Stallings. Moores exercised his access to Stallings, and few if any inquired about their conversations. The law protected him: Since a nonregistered lobbyist/giver does not have to disclose gifts, there was no law to restrict Moores from meting out the memorabilia. It was, again, Stallings’s fault for not reporting her gain. In fact, when Moores and Lucchino’s status as unregistered lobbyists was disputed in 1999 by civic watchdog Mel Shapiro, Assistant City Attorney Les Girard sent a memo to the city clerk that spelled out why the Padres bosses were exempt from registering as lobbyists.
Every player in the influence-peddling game (one assumes) is aware of California Penal Code 165: Bribery, in the form of money or favor to government officials, must come with an “intent to corruptly influence” those officials; bribery “is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three or four years”; and the public official who receives a bribe will “forever be disfranchised and disqualified from holding any public office or trust.” This was not the crime Stallings pled guilty to. But bribery was one of several allegations of criminal misconduct for which Moores was being investigated.
As reported in the Union-Tribune, FBI Special Agent in Charge William Gore said there was no proof that Moores bribed Stallings, no “evidence that you could walk into court with and say, ‘John Moores gave her this. He expected her to do X-Y-Z for him.’ ” But not everyone accepts Gore’s assessment. Many ballpark watchers believe that gifts given by one of San Diego’s wealthiest businessmen to one of the city’s most highly connected politicians were stamped “Return the Favor.” In one instance, as reported by the Union-Tribune, Stallings was, in the summer of 1998, “suspected of tipping off Moores by telephone in the midst of a closed-session meeting.” Stallings retired to the “periphery” of the room to make a phone call. Then-Mayor Susan Golding was alerted, confronted Stallings, and told her to hang up.
Girard said that “there was absolutely no knowledge” he was “personally aware of” that anything improper was going on between Moores and Stallings or Moores and anyone else. Their friendship, as both Gwinn and Girard told me, was “not against the law.”
Why this canyon between what has been reported or verified about Stallings and Moores and the lack of investigation by any agency before 2000? Was there no inquiry because John Moores was the owner of the only baseball team in town? Was there no inquiry because Moores and Lucchino were granted an exemption from registering as lobbyists? Was there no inquiry because the city has inadequate legal and ethical means to protect itself from the monopolistic interests of major-league sports franchises? Was there no inquiry because in the face of such corporate exaction the city had become a house of passive corruption, in which signed deals and crafted regulations have made it easy for the influence of real estate tycoons to flood the council’s chambers?