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During his final decade in Congress, Democrat Bob Filner and his Republican House colleague Brian Bilbray were doing some big favors for their mutual campaign donor, Rancho Santa Fe's Enrique Landa, who was promoting a plan to treat United States sewage in Tijuana.

He called it Bajagua.

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Although the costly project came tantalizingly close to being ramrodded through Washington, in the end there was no cigar. A January 2007 expose in the Wall Street Journal by Scott Paltrow was part of the reason.

The tale of Bajagua's success in getting the contract involves, among other things, well-timed campaign contributions to local members of Congress and other political figures. The firm also enlisted people with crucial connections as lobbyists.

And when that didn't prove enough, Bajagua obtained backing from Vice President Dick Cheney and the White House, which cleared away opposition by federal agencies, several former senior federal agency officials say.

Democratic Rep. Bob Filner, whose district includes the San Ysidro plant, and Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray, from a nearby district, in 2000 sponsored a bill promoting Bajagua's plan. A draft of the bill actually named Bajagua as the firm to do the work.

When some lawmakers complained, the sponsors changed to wording that they hoped was so specific it would make Bajagua the only possible choice.

"We basically wanted one company," Mr. Filner says. "So we had to find a way to do it within the law."

From 1996 through 2005, Bajagua officials and their immediate relatives gave more than $56,000 in campaign contributions to Mr. Filner, federal campaign records show, more than to any other candidate in that period. Mr. Filner says he supported Bajagua because he considers it the best solution and his constituents wanted the plant in Mexico.

"I'm doing this for my district, not for Enrique (Landa) who is my friend," he says.

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Republican Bilbray also got a sizable piece of Landa's cash pile, the Journal's Paltrow reported:

Rep. Bilbray, the other sponsor of the 2000 law, received $2,500 in contributions from Bajagua-related individuals. He lost his seat in the 2000 elections and soon went to work as a lobbyist. He represented Mr. [Craig] Benedetto's public-relations firm to lobby on behalf of Bajagua, for which he received $35,000, records show.

In December 2001, less than a year after Mr. Bilbray's term ended, he testified before the House Water and Environment Subcommittee at a hearing on progress under the 2000 Bajagua-related law. He didn't disclose that he was a Bajagua lobbyist.

Mr. Bilbray says he didn't violate lobbying rules, which forbid a former lawmaker to appear before, or even communicate with, members of Congress to try to influence them on anyone else's behalf for a year after leaving office. He says he testified at the hearing "just representing myself as an author" of the 2000 law.

As more and more light was shed on the project, it's momentum weakened and ultimately stalled. An April 2008 audit by the Government Accountability Office said a government plan to treat sewage on the U.S. side of the border would be cheaper than Bajagua, and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a powerful member of the Appropriations Committee, announced she favored that route, telling the Associated Press:

"This report shows that Bajagua has less certainty and more cost…This has been put off for years. The time has come to move forward with expanding the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant" in San Ysidro.

The next month the San Diego project was approved by the U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission and Filner's long battle for Bajagua was effectively over.

After that, Landa and associates, who have proposed turning the old downtown post office into condos, continued to back Filner; records show he personally contributed $500 to Filner's mayoral campaign in July 2011 and was on the insiders' guest list for the new mayor's inaugural festivities.

These days Landa is backing GOP Assemblyman turned Democrat Nathan Fletcher for mayor. According to a Fletcher campaign disclosure filed Saturday, Landa kicked in the legal maximum contribution of $1,000 on September 27.

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Comments

photog921 Oct. 3, 2013 @ 12:17 p.m.

Excellent reminder of this history. Has never been fully explained but following the money usually is the way.

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