Of all the bad things said about Dick Murphy before 2004, he was never thought to have been a crook. If the word "corruption" was ever associated with his name, it was a small-c kind of corruption: a small favor done for a friend, a redevelopment subsidy approved because it would help the old neighborhood, the benefit of the doubt given to city council colleagues who might have gotten just a bit too chummy with a Mafia-linked strip club owner from Las Vegas. But as the year went on, as the financial clouds darkened around City Hall and city investigators analyzed computer disks using sophisticated software in an effort to retrieve the data that had been erased by persons unknown, there were second thoughts. How could Murphy have made such a mess of it? How long could his defense based on ignorance hold up?
As 2005 dawned, nobody, let alone Murphy himself, yet knew the answer.
Two thousand four was supposed to be the year the lid came off San Diego's City Hall, and in some ways expectations were met. Donna Frye was elected mayor, perhaps. Mike Aguirre, the chronic electoral loser whose legal battles against taxpayer subsidies for Chargers owner Alex Spanos were once regarded as ludicrously quixotic, took over as city attorney. But for Dick Murphy, no matter what the ultimate outcome of his fight to keep his tenuous hold on city government, his political future seemed to have gone into irreversible meltdown.
The year began with three city councilmembers under federal indictment. All three faced trial for wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud; two were also charged with extortion. The indictments arose out of the Cheetahs strip club scandal that had broken seven months before in the spring of 2003. The charges, which involved campaign contributions by representatives of Cheetahs owner Mike Galardi of Las Vegas to Ralph Inzunza, Michael Zucchet, and Charles Lewis, allegedly in exchange for their efforts to water down the city's ban on strippers touching their patrons, had not implicated Murphy. Lewis, 37, would not live to see a trial; he died in August of an esophageal hemorrhage that the county medical examiner concluded was caused by cirrhosis.
But in his January State of the City speech, the mayor leapt to the defense of the trio, singling them out for praise for backing his agenda and allowing them to remain in honorific positions such as deputy mayor, a move that many saw as unnecessary and even unseemly for a man who had been on the state bench.
"As a former Superior Court judge, let me remind everybody that in America people are presumed innocent until proven guilty," Murphy said shortly after FBI agents swooped down on city council offices in the May 2003 raid that resulted in the indictments. "This is just an investigation. We must await the outcome of the U.S. attorney's investigation before conclusions can be drawn."
The first sign of the big trouble to come in the new year of 2004 arrived the second week of January when an investigation by a television reporter led to the resignation of Roger Talamantez, head of the city-owned San Diego Data Processing Corp. Talamantez, who made $235,975, had been caught spending thousands of the corporation's dollars on bottles of wine and tequila shooters at employee parties.
Then, a week after Talamantez's departure, city auditor Ed Ryan, a small, nondescript man who drove a racy sports car, quit without explanation. Murphy, ever solicitous of the status quo, issued a curious statement in which he vouched for Ryan's integrity. "This was at his initiation," said Murphy about Ryan's sudden departure. "There is absolutely no suggestion, hint, or innuendo that this resignation is anything other than his choice.
"In fact, his retirement is being reluctantly accepted by me and everyone familiar with his outstanding performance. Reports indicating that Mr. Ryan has anything other than a stellar record are false. It would be a great injustice to report anything to the contrary."
Murphy's brave if unconvincing façade was shattered less than two weeks later when Phil LaVelle of the Union-Tribune reported that the FBI, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the U.S. Attorney's Office had launched an investigation of the city's finances.
A day after that story broke, Murphy called a news conference in his 11th-floor City Hall offices to say he "welcomed" news of the investigation that an FBI spokeswoman had just confirmed was under way. "I want to assure the public that we will take the same calm, deliberate, effective action to resolve this matter as we have with other problems," he told the gathered reporters.
It was just the beginning of Murphy's long, slow political nightmare.
The mayor had once been expected to easily defeat his two main challengers in his March reelection bid, county supervisor Ron Roberts and port commissioner Peter Q. Davis. Roberts was widely viewed as a has-been member of downtown's old-boy network and crony of Padres owner John Moores. Widely unpopular, Roberts retained a deathlike grip on his supervisorial seat by virtue of his incumbency and the county's lack of term limits. Davis, a retired banker and onetime Murphy campaign contributor, was seen as a political lightweight who was wasting part of his substantial fortune in a futile effort to promote his candidacy.
But the very fact that Davis had the audacity to enter the race seemed to spook the mayor, who called his erstwhile friend "Brutus" and privately vowed that he would eventually wreak political revenge against Davis, whom he had appointed to the port commission. Murphy grew even more nervous as both Davis and Roberts began gaining momentum against him in the polls.
Murphy won the March primary by a comfortable margin over Roberts, with Davis trailing far behind, but he still faced a November runoff. Conventional wisdom said that, based on the March returns, Murphy would easily trounce Roberts and return to office. Donna Frye was nowhere on the horizon.
The next shoe dropped when, barely two weeks after the election, city manager Mike Uberuaga announced he was resigning. Whether he quit of his own accord or was pushed, nobody in the mayor's office would say for the record, but this time, unlike his warm words for Ed Ryan, Murphy did not come to Uberuaga's defense.