San Diego Ethics I. Have you ever wondered why so many crooks set up shop in San Diego? It's for the climate -- the ethical climate. A sleazebag visiting the city this year and following the Sunroad episode would certainly pronounce this the ideal location for a Ponzi scheme, pump 'n' dump stock heist, or real estate development scam.
Sunroad Enterprises put a building close to Montgomery Field. It defied federal and state safety regulations. The City let it happen. The city attorney pushed through a stop-work order. But on December 19, 2006, Mayor Jerry Sanders met with his friend and major donor, Sunroad owner Aaron Feldman, along with Sunroad executive Tom Story and City real estate czar James Waring. Two days later, the City issued a modified stop-work order permitting the building to go forward under the guise of winterization. After a civic conflagration, Sunroad agreed to lower the building. Sanders appointed his then second in command, Ronne Froman, to investigate -- the classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse. Froman assigned the task to Sanders's Office of Ethics and Integrity. Then she resigned. (Who can blame her?)
Late last month, the report came out. It began inauspiciously by not mentioning that Froman had initially spearheaded the report, then quickly jumped ship.
The utterly predictable punch line was that "No evidence was found whatsoever [italics mine] of conspiracy, fraud, corruption, illegal conduct, violation of any federal or state law or regulation or improper influence by or of any city staff."
Hilarious, that. There is a very important letter that the so-called Office of Ethics and Integrity was aware of but ignored. It was written January 19, 2007, by Jeff Brown, aviation safety officer of the California Department of Transportation, Division of Aeronautics. It was received by Sanders and Waring. Brown wrote that the December 21 letter, permitting the building to defy state and federal laws "under the pretense of 'weather proofing' the building, makes it difficult to regard the City's actions as anything other than an attempt to undermine State law." (Italics mine.) Helping someone else break state law is illegal.
In addition, it is illegal to let a developer construct a building without a state permit. The City did. Caltrans had warned it in September of last year that construction of the Sunroad building was a violation of the California Public Utilities Code.
Sanders publicly insisted that he had not brought on Ted Sexton of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority to help with the Sunroad imbroglio. Then City Attorney Mike Aguirre produced correspondence between Alan Bersin, head of the authority, and Sanders, showing that this was a lie. Bersin had written to Sanders that Sexton's services would "help resolve issues surrounding the Sunroad Enterprises building near Montgomery Field."
So how did the Office of Ethics and Integrity handle that hot potato? Well, it put the blame on the mayor's flack, Fred Sainz. According to the report, Sainz erroneously put together a press packet denying that Sexton had been recruited to deal with Sunroad. The mayor hadn't seen the press packet, we're told. The mayor also didn't remember signing the letter to Bersin requesting Sexton's help on the Sunroad mess. Hmm. But according to the report, Sanders was aware at the time that Sexton was indeed working on Sunroad.
So why, then, did Sanders go on Roger Hedgecock's radio show and deny that Sexton was working on the Sunroad issue? The Office of Ethics and Integrity dodges that one, even though Sanders later apologized to Hedgecock for the whopper.
The report ignored completely police chief William Lansdowne's refusal to carry out a Sunroad search warrant and the public leaking of the search warrant's contents -- something that is also against the law.
Sexton refused to be interviewed for the report. Sunroad people weren't interviewed. Nonetheless, the Office of Ethics and Integrity drew many conclusions. How? By blindly accepting people's word. The one that gave me the biggest chuckle revolved around that December 19 meeting among Sanders, Feldman, Story, and Waring. Two days later, the City issued the modified order that permitted Sunroad to complete the building. The report admits that the four discussed the modified work order. But, says the purported Office of Ethics and Integrity, "Both Mayor Sanders and Waring stressed that Feldman did not make any offers of inducement, bribes, corruption or any illegal actions in exchange for assistance with the Sunroad issue."
Oh. That's comforting -- to a larcenist looking for a home base.