In 1992, O’Connor declined to run for reelection and was succeeded by Susan Golding, whose earlier campaign for county supervisor was financed by her husband, Richard Silberman, Copley’s steady date of a decade before. By the time Golding became mayor, Silberman had been convicted of money laundering and the couple was divorced.
With no personal friends remaining in public office and her health beginning to fail, Copley, nearing 80, adopted a receding profile during the ensuing Golding years. In the summer of 1996, she made no public appearances when San Diego finally hosted the Republican National Convention, Jim Copley’s long-held ambition.
To commemorate the event, Copley commissioned an enormous sand sculpture of a dancing elephant and threw a lavish outdoor party in Embarcadero Park near Seaport Village for thousands of invited guests, presided over by her son David, who greeted visitors while seated in a throne-like chair under a tent.
Only a decade later did the Union-Tribune report that the city had fudged the numbers of its growing pension obligation in order to free up enough cash to subsidize the Republicans. The pension debt would later threaten to bankrupt the city.
Helen Copley died on August 25, 2004, at Foxhill, the sprawling French Provincial estate in La Jolla built by her late husband Jim. She was 81. Her only child David, then 52, was born after Helen fled to San Diego following a quickie marriage and divorce from his father in Iowa, apparently to give the child a name; Jim Copley adopted David in 1965, immediately after marrying Helen.
At the time of her death, Helen had long since settled her legal disagreement with Jim Copley’s two adopted children from his first marriage, who sued for fraud, claiming she raided their trust fund. The agreement was secret, but it was clear they were out of the company for good. David was his mother’s only apparent heir. She named him chairman and chief executive of the Copley Press and publisher of the Union-Tribune in 1997.
For years, rumors swirled through the Union-Tribune about the state of his health. A huge man with a baby face, Copley was famous for his drinking bouts and the extravagant parties he threw. He had been repeatedly arrested for drunk driving, in one case doing a week at a county labor camp after being picked up weaving down a street near his La Jolla mansion in his Porsche.
In 1999, Vanity Fair contributor Maureen Orth wrote “Vulgar Favors,” in which she chronicled the history of Andrew Cunanan, the 27-year-old gay serial killer from Hillcrest who murdered fashion icon Gianni Versace in 1997. Orth wrote that Cunanan had been seen at Copley’s parties and went on to note that the Union-Tribune had been suspiciously slow to report on Cunanan and his relationships with wealthy La Jolla men.
“The San Diego Union-Tribune did not write about Andrew Cunanan at all for weeks,” Orth said in a 1999 interview. “The very first mention, as I recall, was an obituary of his third victim, Lee Miglin, and never mentioned Andrew Cunanan.
“And the first several stories they did were off wire copy and talking to people in Minneapolis and never once asked anybody in Hillcrest nor anybody Cunanan knew to comment. I thought that was just kind of amazing. I mean, you've got national reporters coming out from all over the country to do major stories about this guy, and he's never mentioned in his local newspaper. That's odd.”
Though it wasn’t acknowledged by the paper, the U-T rumor mill had it that Copley’s heart was bad, caused by his weight and indulgence in food, drink, and perhaps other substances. Then, almost a year after Helen’s death, the U-T announced in July 2005 that he’d had a heart transplant.
“For me, of course, this is wonderful news,” said an email message attributed to him by the paper. “The surgeons and their team at Sharp Hospital in San Diego did a magnificent job. Indeed, over the last two years, they literally have saved my life several times. Thanks to their skill and the scientific advances that make their work possible, I can look forward to many years of renewed vigor and productivity.” Copley did recover, but the same could not be said for his newspapers. Circulation continued to fall and advertising fled, a typical American newspaper story made worse by the Copley chain’s reputation for spinning facts, relentless boosterism, and history of conducting political wars on behalf of its owners.
In early 2006, Union-Tribune editor Karin Winner wrote a page-one story about the importance of the state’s Public Records Act, in which she said, “We shine white-hot spotlights on your government — local, state and national — so you can scrutinize and evaluate the actions of the people you elect and the way they spend your tax dollars.” For many readers, accustomed to years of slanted coverage — as well as strategic lack of coverage — clearly designed to protect Copley’s preferred candidates or promote the city’s latest taxpayer-subsidized stadium proposal, the idea that Union-Tribune reporters had started turning over rocks in search of civic evildoing seemed preposterous.
But there were a few signs of change, viewed by cynics as the financially flagging newspaper’s last-gasp attempt to recruit new subscribers by building its credibility. In 2005, Winner launched the “Watchdog Report,” a series of investigative stories that delved into long-unreported municipal scandals involving city land sales, lobbying violations, and — at long last — the “money mess” that was the city’s underfunded pension fund. Many of the stories were clearly derived from the work of others; a Watchdog Report about slum property owned by Nick Inzunza, brother of ex-San Diego city councilman Ralph Inzunza, convicted in the Cheetahs strip-club bribery case, had already been done elsewhere.
But the mere fact that the stories ran at all seemed to show that Winner was serious about her new direction. In June 2005, the U-T broke the story, reported by Marcus Stern of the Copley News Service, of GOP Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s sale of his Del Mar house to a lobbyist for whom he’d done repeated favors. Within months, Cunningham, a fighter-pilot hero of the war in Vietnam who had long been a Copley favorite, resigned his seat; he pleaded guilty to multiple bribery counts and was sentenced to eight years and four months in federal prison. In 2006 the coverage was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, exorcising the old ghost of the San Diego Union, which had never received the coveted award.