6:80 a.m., Mon., March 12
Aguirre shows up on time, ready to jog in blue gym shorts and a blue sweat top with hood. I'd expected velour from Adam’s apple to tarsus, but only the New Balance logo on his shoes suggests Jog Chic, and that mildly. He wants to run up Sixth Avenue along Balboa Park instead of through my gentle neighborhood course, so we ride in his late-model BMW, a suitable lawyer’s car, down Florida Canyon and briefly onto the northbound 1-5 chute to Sixth Avenue, where we park at Elm Street. We do some minimal stretching, and then off we go — it’s all uphill. But damn. He’s not jogging. He’s running.
Immediately he starts in on virtually everybody and anything. This town, he says, tolerates mediocre and compromised politicians, is a haven for three-piece-suited frauds who wouldn’t get away with their chicanery elsewhere. An IRS investigator he knows “just laughs about San Diego” and says the city has a national reputation among his cohorts. “Look at Alessio,” Aguirre says, explaining how the one-time owner of Agua Caliente racetrack and Mr. A’s, and former principal in the Hotel del Coronado used to remodel the hotel and bill the work to Agua Caliente to avoid paying taxes.
We’re only at Juniper or so, and I’m breathing hard. Now he’s on to Sheriff John Duffy, his nemesis, the man he tormented with public challenges of accepting money from La Costa resort owners until Duffy was forced to give up his seat on President Reagan’s organized crime advisory board. Now he’s badmouthing Congressman Jim Bates. Now talking about J. David and Roger Hedgecock. And about publisher Larry Remer (“If we lose the idealists, what chance do we have?”). And back to Hedgecock and the $130,000 “loan” from J. David and Nancy Hoover: “Why do the papers keep calling it a loan?”
“Because,” I venture, now winded seriously, “If he [huff] repaid it or [puff] began to repay it [huff] before the news of the crash came out [huff and puff], who’s to say [huff] it wasn’t a loan?”
He doesn't hesitate a beat. “Well then, if that were true, you'd never see any fraud prosecutions at all.”
We’re only just past Laurel Street and I have to stop for a walk. How embarrassing.
Until last month my only contact with Mike Aguirre had been as potential constituent of would-be Congressman Aguirre, back in the spring of 1982 when he was running against Jim Bates for the Democratic nomination to Congress from the Forty-fourth District. It was a sunny Saturday morning and I was outside my house wondering what to make out of the day when I saw the Aguirre-for-Congress, one-car motorcade bearing down on me, a blond guy at the wheel of a Detroit convertible and the candidate sitting atop the rag- top deck in the rear, homecoming- style. Mine was the only vote in sight, the morning being still fairly young, and by the time I saw what was about to happen, it was too late to retreat into the house.
“Are you a registered Democrat?” Aguirre shouted, and there followed a sidewalk give-and-take that lasted perhaps as long as ten minutes, he mostly giving and me mostly taking. Aguirre is a swarmer: venture one opinion and he has three examples of his compatibility w ith that attitude. He had been, he said, an assistant U.S. attorney here in the early 1970s and had successfully prosecuted Laborers Union officials for pension fund fraud, had been an investigator for a U.S. Senate subcommittee that probed the rackets, was an antiwar activist when he went to school at Berkeley, and more, and more.
All of this was spilling out in response to what he thought I would go for, and in fact, he was managing to appeal more than repel. He wanted to know what I do for money and when I told him, he almost leaped up and down proclaiming that he was in the middle of the Penthouse-La Costa trial defending the magazine against the spa’s libel suit. He couldn’t understand why a person like me wouldn’t be happy to vote for him, and I just repeated what by then he must have grown weary of hearing. 1 didn’t want to have to vote for a man simply because he might win a lawsuit against Jim Bates.
By early that year Bates had become the pre-eminent Democratic officeholder in San Diego and was a shooin for the new district that the national Democratic Party had meticulously carved to include the city’s eastern neighborhoods south of Interstate 8, with a finger reaching southward into equally Democratic National City. Even in conservative San Diego, in the conservative 1980s, the Republicans weren't likely to capture that seat.
Along with three other Democrats, Bates had been elected to the San Diego City Council in the early 1970s, during the city’s brief fling with the two-party system, and he had proved to be a party trouper. His loyalty had helped keep the council’s four-vote minority intact while the Republican majority on the council, some of them jealous of their own Pete Wilson, sometimes came unglued, forcing the mayor to swing with the Democrats whenever the tenuous majority collapsed. This made the Republicans unhappy. The mayor would roll his eyes and snipe sarcastically at Bates initiatives; editors at Copley Newspapers cracked about Bates’s having been a donut salesman; and some of the reporters followed their bosses’ leads, writing stories that either discounted Bates’s successes or illuminated his failures. But Bates, while not brilliant, knew how to stay in touch with his constituents. His machine kept chugging along, taking him on to the county board of supervisors. In 1982 Bates was the first and only well-known Democrat to take out papers for the new Forty-fourth Congressional District, much of which lay within his supervisorial district. As night follows the day. the Forty-fourth was going to be Bates's district.
Into this picture walked Aguirre, who, though he'd been born at Mercy Hospital thirty-three years earlier, hadn’t spent much time in the city at all. "There was a big backlash,” Aguirre recalls. "People [in the party] were saying, 'Here we’ve been working the salt mines all these years and along comes this punk who wants it all.’ ” That wasn't half of it. If Aguirre had been satisfied just to put his name out there and build a reputation for a future run at another office, the party regulars might have quickly forgiven him for costing Bates and the Democrats time and money they wouldn’t have had to spend in an uncontested primary. Instead, Aguirre went berserk. It wasn’t just a congressional seat he was after; he was after total reform, clean government, a voice, no, a system to represent the people.
"I was thinking about how to shift the whole power structure in San Diego County ... to organize everything south of Interstate 8. Look at America — it was founded on the per- fectabi 1 ity of humankind, but the people are given representatives like | Pete] Chacon, Bates, [Lucy] Killea. We’re sending people into battle to produce a society that is sensitive to the needs of its people, and the representatives we’re sending are inadequate. It was going to take someone with great energy to change all that.” Someone like Mike Aguirre.
Good politicians probably all have egos like Aguirre’s; their professional success probably depends on how well they hide them. Even Larry Remer — whose politics, manner, even voice, resemble Aguirre’s — even Larry Remer, the publisher of Newsline, was rankled by Aguirre. “He sees a place for himself and wants to push anyone not as bright and capable out of the way. 1 can see a lot more maturity in him since the Congressional race." | A standard line around town.] "But back then he had an attitude — either you 're with me or you're against me."
So Aguirre went about trying to beat Bates, and he seemed willing to do almost anything to accomplish that. His loudest, most powerful shot came right at the beginning of the campaign, after he had taken out his nominating papers from the registrar of voters. A peculiarity of the electoral laws requires that a candidate personally collect more than sixty but fewer than seventy-five nominating signatures, of which forty must be valid. Worried about collecting too many signatures, Aguirre collected too few, and he says that when he went back to get more petition forms, he was told that the valid signatures already collected could not be applied toward the new set. "That's what they did to me, the bastards. So 1 began to wonder how Bates did it."
He got a disaffected Bates supporter named Jeff Van Deerlin, Lionel Van Deerlin's son, to state by affidavit that Bates signed his nominating petitions knowing that he had not collected all the signatures personally. Worse, Aguirre said, was the fact that Bates amended the filing in collusion with Registrar Ray Ortiz. Aguirre complained formally to the California Secretary of State, asking that Bates be disqualified. The newspapers, led by the Union and the Tribune, began playing the story on their front pages and running several flattering profiles of Aguirre, the upstart Democrat. When the Secretary of State ruled that Bates’s error was technical and that he had complied with the spirit of the law, Aguirre sued in Superior Court for a Riling removing Bates’s name from the ballot. When Aguirre won a preliminary order requiring Bates and Ortiz to show cause why Bates’s name shouldn't be taken off, the Union front-page headline incorrectly screamed, "Judge Orders Bates’ Name Off Ballot." The very next day the Union's editorial page recounted Bates’s failure to witness all the signatures personally. "But that wasn’t all,” the editorial somberly intoned, "it then was discovered that only thirty-eight of the forty signatures Mr. Bates personally gathered were qualified registered voters." Fearing the community might drown in this moral cesspool unleashed by Bates, the Union concluded that "voters themselves can decide June 8 whether [Bates’s] ugly acts demean a potential congressman and the office he seeks."
A week later the Superior Court judge ruled that Bates’s name would remain on the ballot. The Tribune, over a Jeff Ristine story, headlined that "a chastened Bates" had, according to Superior Court Judge Perry Langford, given Aguirre considerable provocation for the suit. Aguirre appealed the ruling to the California Supreme Court, and when that body decided there was no merit to Aguirre’s case, the Union headline moaned, "Supreme Court Won’t Take Bates’ Name Off Ballot.”
By this time the Tribune's Ristine had decided in a long analysis that "Bates is no longer a shooin’’ and that the campaign was in trouble. Aguirre continued to press the matter, asking the district attorney’s office to investigate Bates for criminal violations. The D.A. sent the request to the state Attorney General, who ruled on May 8 that there had been no knowing or fraudulent violation of state law, which brought the legal battle to a close. But behind the steady public drumfire over the ballot discrepancy was a covert flow of sometimes fanciful Aguirre charges that found their way to editors’ desks. Aguirre got prominent publicity when he accused Bates of using county staff for campaign purposes, but when pressed, he admitted he was "just trying to have a little fun” and that he couldn’t prove the charge “beyond a reasonable doubt.” He charged that Bates had accepted $1000 from “a vocal and financial supporter of Ku Klux Klan candidate Tom Metzger." The alleged KKK supporter was Herman “Rock” Kreutzer, whose Big Oak Ranch in Harbison Canyon had been the scene of a fundraising hoe-down for Metzger’s own congressional campaign. Kreutzer says he did not donate the ranch and that Metzger and some 400 to 500 fellow travelers each paid the five-dollar admission fee as everyone else did that day. “I was very angry at Mike at the time. Jesus, you can’t say that kind of thing. That cost me a lot of business.” Kreutzer can't recall, but thinks he threatened to sue. At any rate, he says he won a personal and written apology from Aguirre. La Prensa, the bilingual weekly that published a heated-up story based on Aguirre’s press release that called Kreutzer a white supremacist, printed a retraction worded by Aguirre himself. An Aguirre charge that Bates had accepted $250 from convicted felon John Alessio was also well publicized and needed no retraction; it was true in all its parts.
After all the damaging publicity, Bates trounced Aguirre in the primary, seventy-two percent to twenty-eight percent. Aguirre’s dutiful postelection endorsement of Bates lasted just a few days — he called up the Union to tell the paper he was withdrawing the endorsement because he had just learned that Bates had accepted money from an owner of La Costa, and the story was printed. The Union endorsed Bates’s politically unknown Republican rival in the general election but Bates defeated her handily.
For Bates it had been, as he put it at the time, “a nightmare.” Shortly after the general election, he and Aguirre came to speak to each other again, reaching an agreement that Bates seems to honor more than Aguirre. Says Bates of Aguirre these days: “I agree with his values, his social and economic ones, and his feelings about justice. He’s young, bright, nice looking and ambitious. And he tends to be [and here Bates skips a beat for effect] ruthless.” Says Aguirre of Bates: “I’m supporting Jim Bates [in his upcoming bid for re-election]. I think it would be a disaster if we had a Republican representing the district. But we can do better. I’ve told you what I think about Bates. I can’t change my mind because it’s the political thing to do.”
6:58 a.m., Mon., March 12
We’re running again, north of Laurel Street approaching Upas. Aguirre is letting loose with wonderful stuff about Dominelli and Hedgecock, information he’s gained as part of the lawsuit he’s about to file against Dominelli’s officers on behalf of a few investors, but it does me no good because I’ve got nothing to write with and it’s all coming so fast my memory doesn’t have time to fix the words. “I wish I had my notebook,” I groan.
“That’s the point,” he laughs.
We hook south at Upas for the long leg back to the car. It’s downhill. We pass somebody walking north and Aguirre says hello. It’s his barber.
The next time I stop, Aguirre keeps running and says over his shoulder that he’ll hang a U and pick me up after a few hundred yards. When he returns, we talk about newspapers in general; how when he was in Los Angeles practicing law, he was disappointed by the L.A. Times's local coverage (“It was written for people living in San Marino”) and how San Diego doesn’t seem to demand much of its papers either, especially when it comes to reporting power deals. “You know,” he says, “that’s the thing about San Diego. People don’t want to know too much about where the money’s coming from.”
“Just who’s got it,” I reply.
We’re nearing the car, mercifully, and he’s back on to Dominelli, who seems to pervade his thoughts. The thing about this story, he says, is that it offers an opportunity to reporters to expose how the city works.
“Yeah,” I huff, “but these were the new kids on the block, and the old kids didn’t like them. Dominelli doesn’t explain how the old power works,” I say, though not so smoothly as that.
By the time he drops me back at my house it’s 7:35 and he wants to shower and hit Hob Nob Hill restaurant for breakfast prior to his 9:00 a.m. appearance at city hall before the rules committee of the council. It’s going to be a busy day. He’s going to testify along with Councilman Bill Mitchell against Crown Cruise Line’s proposal to make San Diego home port for its “gambling” ship. At 10:30 he’s got to meet Lionel Van Deerlin before the two of them appear in federal court for a hearing on Van Deerlin’s libel suit against syndicated columnist Jack Anderson. He’s got phone work to do in the afternoon, and meetings with the sole associate in his practice, attorney Patricia Meyer. I’ll skip the Hob Nob and rejoin him at city hall.
Aguirre is the youngest of three boys born to his native Spanish father and his mother, who herself was bom in San Diego to parents from Mexico. Shortly after Aguirre’s infancy his mother and father divorced. When she remarried, she and her new husband left San Diego for Yuma, then El Centro, then Indio, where Aguirre entered Catholic school. His mother and stepfather sold large appliances and the business kept them moving. From Indio they went to Sacramento and then to Salt Lake City, where Aguirre graduated from junior high. From there it was on to Phoenix, where he was enrolled for two years at Brophy Preparatory and his education continued to be Catholic. But school- work began to give him trouble and his grades dropped, so he transferred to the city system’s Camelback High School.
“That’s basically when I left home. I’d made friends and was tired of moving, so when my mom and dad decided to move to Albuquerque, I decided to stay in Phoenix. I lived with a friend whose father was an alcoholic and I left them for a trailer.” Rent money came from mowing lawns and from the social security checks left him after the death of his natural father, who had resettled in Mexico City.
‘That was when I got it turned around and started getting grades. I was into history and biographies.” Aguirre says he never used drugs and never got in trouble with the law, but that during high school he was a touch hotheaded. He stands barely five feet, seven inches today but says that he was such a violent football tackier that he was made a defensive end on his high school varsity and used by the coach to demonstrate proper meanness. He went to Arizona State University. “College,” he says, “taught me the social amenities that I hadn’t mastered. I was starting to get a sense of social change, too.” [It was the late 1960s.] “I was reading. The whole Catholic thing gave me a bedrock of values.”
Aguirre fell in with some friends who were active in student government. In his junior year he became a student body officer; his title, actually, was Vice President for Social Change. Aguirre’s scrapbook, which he keeps at his office at Eighth Avenue and C Street downtown, shows that he gave some ASU fraternities fits over their exclusion of blacks, set up a used-book co-op, and got in trouble with the administration for distributing admission applications on Indian reservations. (The school only sent applications out to those who asked for them.) But the project that proved most important to his career was a voter registration drive he headed, which registered ninety percent of the eligible students. He wrote a voter registration how-to-do-it manual and Time magazine came to campus to do a story. That in turn got him noticed by the Kennedy family, who flew him back to Boston in the summer of 1970 so he could work around Harvard registering students for the U.S. Senate campaign of Teddy Kennedy. The next summer he spent in Washington, D.C., registering students in that area.
In the meantime, he was accepted oy.Boalt Hall, Berkeley’s law school where his oldest brother, Gary, had been a class president. “It was like moving to a new town, and it was way over my head. I studied hard. I had my own carrel in the library and I’d get up in the early morning and study until a short lunch break and then hit it again until I went to bed. That first year [fellow students] wanted me to run for student office, but I wouldn’t.” The second year he did, and was elected vice president of Berkeley’s Associated Student Body. “In my third year I ran for [U.C. Berkeley] copresident to block a more conservative candidate.” (He won.) The Aguirre scrapbook contains Daily Californian clippings in which Aguirre is pictured alongside Cesar Chavez during the Gallo wine boycott. He showed his law enforcement side by advocating that campus police be given $10,000 “flash rolls” with which they could set up big drug busts. He led a successful campaign to cut men’s intercollegiate athletics funding drastically in favor of increasing women’s — a campaign that seriously altered Cal’s sports program. He also organized Berkeley’s 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” teach-in that attracted, among others, William Ruckelshaus, Nixon’s deputy attorney general who had just resigned rather than fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. In print Aguirre railed against “immoral or illegal actions committed by the government.” It was the first Berkeley eruption since 1970 and Aguirre was radical on the subject of Nixon. “His past performances demonstrate that the President will disobey the law, on principle, until he’s caught,” the story read.
Aguirre’s grades remained good, he stayed on decent terms with UC Berkeley’s administration, and when he graduated from Boalt, Chancellor Albert Bowker hosted a private lunch for Aguirre and his parents in the chancellor’s office. Aguirre was elated. “Here I had been living in a goddamn trailer and seven years later the chancellor is throwing an honorary lunch for my family. So I thought, you can get a lot done.”
He got a job drafting administrative codes in the state legislative council’s office from August, 1973 to the following April while he waited to hear if he’d passed the bar exam. He had and so had his other brother Tony, who, though he was two years older, had taken the test at the same time. Aguirre decided to follow Tony, who had followed Gary back to San Diego. With Gary’s recommendation, and after a highly successful interview, Aguirre landed in the U.S. attorney’s office as an assistant.
Post-Watergate investigative fervor, and Aguirre’s own luck, combined to start Aguirre on another roll. At the time, 1974, the federal prosecutors and local law enforcement were just beginning to understand the depths of a scandal involving the AFL-CIO Laborers Union Local 89 pension funds. Aguirre one day overheard an informant complaining in a hallway and asked him to step inside, where the informant told a story about the union’s secretary-treasurer who, at age thirty-four, had just retired with seventy-seven years of pension credits in order to take a job managing pension funds for the union’s trustees. Aguirre checked out the story, found it was true, and was then transferred into the special prosecutor’s office to pursue the case further.
For a year he headed the investigation of the trustees before a second piece of good fortune came to him. A very bright, also young, and more experienced assistant named Tom Coffin was assigned the case. Aguirre was sent back to Washington to persuade the Justice Department to assign more manpower, and he returned with two investigators plus the promise of help from the FBI’s office in Los Angeles. By April of 1976 Coffin and Aguirre got a federal grand jury to hand up charges of misuse of funds, bribery, and conspiracy against seventeen trustees, union officials, building contractor officers, H. Dene Armstrong, a county planning commissioner, and Bob Andreen, the trustees’ lawyer. All seventeen were convicted. “At that time,’’ Aguirre says, “Local 89 was the largest federal labor rackets case in terms of people indicted and convicted since the [federal labor] statutes of 1959 and 1962. It may still be.”
He later flew back to Washington looking for a position as a staff lawyer to the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations. He went there with no prearranged job offers, and purely on the strength of his record in the Local 89 prosecution, he got the appointment. By then just twenty- seven, he was already on the inside of the federal prosecutorial scene. He got to know the labor squad in the; Justice Department, got to know Phil Manuel, who is now a Reagan White House adviser whom Aguirre terms “a professional, rather than a political, lawyer,” and got to know LaVern Duffy, an older Robert F. Kennedy bloodhound from the days of Kennedy’s Teamster-chasing Justice Department.
Aguirre did not, however, get to cover himself with glory. “The subcommittee was controlled by [Senator Henry]Scoop Jackson, and the rest of the senators were just not going after anybody. The staff all agreed it was sham but we went ahead anyway and got out a report.” It was a 1976-77 probe of Frank Fitzsimmons, then president of the Teamsters, and much of the material had to do with Teamster use of pension funds for loans to the underworld. Aguirre began longing to return to San Diego but CBS News called with an offer of employment to help them conduct an investigation that was never broadcast. Aguirre accepted. “It was all about Allen Glick [La Jolla resident and socialite] and how the mob was skimming funds when he owned the Stardust. CBS thought that was too far out on a limb."
In April of 1977, with Jimmy Carter in the White House and the top spot in the U.S. attorney’s office vacant here, Aguirre made a run for that highest local federal police job. If the thought occurred to him that he was too young (not yet twenty-eight years old), it didn’t dissuade him then and doesn’t now. “I might have been young, but I had the experience." He got help with that argument from Larry Kapiloff, then an assemblyman, who sent a glowing recommendation to Senator Alan Cranston. He also received support from the CBS News producer and from Supervisor Jim Bates. Others in his age group might have accepted his failure to get the position, given his youth, but Aguirre blames it on his hometown. "Part of it was San Diego. I couldn’t develop any following at all. I’ve never been able to win people over in San Diego. ’’ He says it was the first time he hadn’t gotten the world to work for him, and he regards the experience as a failure, “a failure in the sense that I’d set an objective and I didn’t achieve it."
He tried to get a position as a junior partner in a number of San Diego law firms, but again without success. So he went to Los Angeles that year to join the first of several private firms, commuting to San Diego on weekends to join his family here. Also he came to teach a UCSD Extension course once a week on the history of organized crime. After that he did the same thing for USC in a course offered by that school's history department. And he parlayed that experience into a two- day national conference at USC on the same dark subject. He managed to attract some Justice Department buddies such as LaVem Duffy and Phil Manuel to sit on the panel, as well as other prominent regional and national figures in law enforcement. There were academic authorities and journalists and some off-the-wall people like writer Budd Schulberg and entertainer Steve Allen. Even Ed Meese was there, who then was director of a private criminal justice think tank. Aguirre, never one to think small, says he’d intended the conference to be the spawning ground for a national rejuvenation of crime-busting, maybe the beginning of another Kefauver Senate investigation (which broke into the Mafia’s operations in the 1950s). That didn’t happen, and Aguirre decided to return to San Diego to open a private practice.
One of the considerations that motivated him to return was political. He had his eye on the South Bay congressional seat that Lionel Van Deerlin was saying he would give up in 1982. “I thought I’d take a shot at that seat because I knew nobody in San Diego was going to appoint me to anything. I had to be my own man.” In June, 1980 he opened up a lone-wolf law practice. His brother Gary, ten years older, by that time had a very successful law practice, and his brother Tony was with a private firm. Aguirre joined neither of them. “We loved each other, but we could never get along professionally," Aguirre says.
There was a young paralegal named Kathy Jones in Tony’s office whom Tony introduced to Aguirre. Though Aguirre plied her with flowers delivered to the office, it was two years before she would say yes to his proposal. “It didn’t work out at first," Kathy Aguirre says. “He was too brash, and I told him that." Kathy, a fourth-generation San Diegan, eventually quit Tony’s office to pursue a degree in business. The couple had their first child, Arthur Michael, last September, and Kathy, when she finds time, runs Aguirre’s office finances.
When Aguirre returned to San Diego in 1980, he was an outsider who seemed to want to remain one. He says he alienated himself from Pete Wilson’s San Diego Crime Commission when he made an aggressive pitch to get that body to launch a probe of organized crime in San Diego. “The commission got great coverage in the papers here but they weren’t doing any work. They’d made an advance decision not to look into organized crime." Wilson’s crime commission was a blue-chip collection of community leaders and minor politicians, nearly all of whom (one exception being Police Chief Bill Kolender) had no expertise in law enforcement. La Jolla heiress and arts patron Danah Fayman was on it. So was prominent physician Ralph Ocampo and Channel 10 general manager Clayton Brace. One of the few members besides Kolender with some experience in law enforcement, Murray Galinson, chaired the law enforcement committee. Galinson had for three years been an administrative officer in the U.S. attorney’s office and was a law professor active enough in the Democratic Party to have been named to an influential position in Walter Mondale’s current campaign for the presidency.
After Aguirre’s appearance before the commission, which included a plea for it to dig deep into the La Costa resort people like Allen Glick, Aguirre got a call from a source close to the commission who told him that Galinson had dismissed Aguirre’s presentation as “grandstanding." “Well,” Aguirre fulminates today, “it turns out that Galinson is a co-partner with Glick in a Dominelli investment. They’re La Jolla neighbors!", (In the spring of 1983, Dominelli, the Hotel Del’s Larry Lawrence, and Dick Silberman formed an equal partnership called YHI that purchased forty-four percent of a California and Nevada mining concern named Yuba Natural Resources, Inc. Shortly after that, Dominelli sold his eleven-percent interest in Yuba to Glick, who put up $100,000 and to Galinson and eight others, who put up lesser amounts). “You go to these people and tell them they’ve gotta get something going on Glick and on La Costa and you’re the enemy!" Aguirre continues. “It’s okay if somebody has mob connections in Las Vegas as long as he’s got a nice house in La Jolla. The Republicans and the Democrats in this town just don’t give a shit. If people have no interest whatever in basic integrity, how are they going to develop any interest in pursuing organized crime?"
9:00 a.m., Mon., March 18
In room 2000 on city hall’s second floor, the council’s rules committee is listening while Councilman Bill Mitchell attacks the impending sailing of Crown Cruise Line’s “gambling” ship, the so-called cruise to nowhere. The rules committee doesn’t appear to know how to handle this one. On one hand, a pack of influential individuals appears to support the enterprise. The Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce and the city’s hoteliers had formed a lobbying group to back cruise businesses in general, and they were applying their efforts to Crown in particular. The group had given itself a wind-blown and imperial collective name—the Consortium. The second most important Republican on the council, Bill Cleator, is in Crown's corner. Only Mitchell, with the advice and support of Aguirre, is openly fighting the proposal. Police Chief Bill Kolender has taken no position on the matter and says he’s waiting to hear the opinion of the state attorney general.
Mitchell is earnestly saying that Crown’s principals ought to be investigated, and asked about their associations with “known crime figures.” Aguirre keeps his head down and scribbles notes in a yellow legal pad. It was Aguirre who threw a monkey wrench in Crown’s smoothly oiled approach to the city, planting stories with reporters from nearly every paper that published articles on the subject. Aguirre’s tips questioned Cleator’s handling of the Consortium business and raised the question of the ship’s legality.
When it’s Cleator’s turn to speak, he says, "I’m glad to see Mr. Aguirre and Mr. Mitchell out in the open rather than conducting their whispering campaign.” Cleator insists he already has contacted law enforcement agencies, all of whom have answered in the negative to his question, “Hey, should we tell these people to take their business elsewhere?” And he tells Aguirre and Mitchell, “I would suggest you call Bill Kolender and Sheriff Duffy and the FBI and hear what they have to say. Without that, you’re conducting a witch hunt.”
When it’s Aguirre’s turn, he inserts a zinger, introducing a preliminary March 8 memo from the district attorney’s office that he says indicates that '‘if it (Crown’s ship] is determined to be a gambling ship, it could be a violation of state and federal law.”
After the hearing, Aguirre corners Don Harrison, former politics reporter for the Union and now a public relations man handling the Consortium’s lobbying effort. Aguirre insists the only objective of the ship is gambling and that Joel Rahn, a principal in Crown Cruise who failed to win approval from New Jersey’s gaming commission to supply slot machines to Atlantic City’s casinos, in fact controls Crown Cruise Line’s operations.
“Why? Where did you hear that?” Harrison asks.
Aguirre: “I know that from everything in my experience. Why won’t they issue a statement about their books?”
Harrison: “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask them?”
Aguirre: “You’re their spokesman, Don.”
Harrison: ”I am not their spokesman. . .”
Aguirre: "Well, why are you here then?”
Harrison: "I’m representing the Consortium. . .”
Aguirre: "What’s the difference, Don?”
Harrison, now angry and harassed, starts to walk away, glances at the onlookers to this scene, and returns.
Harrison: "You're not offering any proof, nothing. The only thing we’ve heard is, you don’t like them. And frankly, that doesn't cut the mustard around here.”
Aguirre [apparently confused]: "What doesn’t?”
Harrison: "You don’t.”
Aguirre: "Now, that's a low blow, Don. You don’t need to get personal.”
Harrison: "Well, you’re being dishonest.”
Harrison: "With this plethora of charges and general statements that are based in no facts at all.”
Aguirre: "I just read the D.A.’s memo.”
Harrison: "Well, he’s a hell of a lot more moderate in what he’s saying than you are.”
Aguirre seems satisfied, and at any rate,if he stays much longer he'll be late to his meeting with Van Deerlin. The two have to work out a few' details prior to a hearing before U.S. Judge Leland Nielsen on several pretrial motions in the Anderson libel suit. Aguirre admonishes Harrison again. "Don’t be mad, Don. I haven’t done anything to you and you’re talking about my whispering campaign. Don’t get personal, Don.”
And Aguirre walks away. "How do you like that? When I go out front in this town. I’m grandstanding. If I stay in the background, I’m whispering.” Then he jabs at Kolender. "He’s gonna wait before he says anything. What does it take? I think we ought to be at least as tough on organized crime as we are on high schoolers smoking dope."
The AFL-CIO Local 89 case gave Aguirre a good deal of credibility as a federal prosecutor, and the Penthouse-La Costa libel trial late in 1981 and early 1982 gave his private practice a sturdy boot forward. There are many attorneys in town who suggest he lucked into the Penthouse defense. The fact is, several of Penthouse's West Coast lawyers, already working on the case, had taken Aguirre’s USC course and when it came time to select someone familiar with federal investigations into mob affairs, they remembered the young guy who'd been to Washington. Aguirre says he was hired to put together the “truth defense,” to help establish that La Costa owed its existence to tainted money. Anticipating criticism that he claims too large a role for himself in that marathon, headline-grabbing trial, Aguirre volunteers, “If you talk to any of the lawyers involved in that defense, they’ll say they won the case.”
A local Aguirre detractor, who was not a member of the defense team but who is familiar with the trial, calls Aguirre “a lightweight young whippersnapper who’s convinced for whatever reason he should be President of the United States. He sees organized crime under every bed and thinks he’s Bobby Kennedy reincarnated. He was just one of a bank of Penthouse attorneys whose main job was in administering the case, and he did a lousy job of that because half the time he billed to Penthouse was spent talking on the phone with the press.”
On the other hand. New York lawyer Roy Grutman, chief of the defense team, says, ”Penthouse spent millions investigating and defending itself and Mike Aguirre earned a substantial sum of money like the rest, and of all of them he was the best. His abilities, particularly in penetrating banking and land transactions, were absolutely superior. The most complex kinds of schemes designed to make money disappear, the most difficult paper labyrinths, he was able to unravel.” Grutman says Aguirre was in charge of assembling how misappropriated Teamster money was funneled through C. Amholt Smith's U.S. National Bank and then to La Costa. Few of the trial’s more spectacular revelations — such as La Costa’s Allard Roen’s favors for mob figures, or the mob-tainted background of the judge presiding over the trial — were generated by Aguirre. But Grutman does credit Aguirre with establishing that an unnamed informant who as a La Costa employee once described to the sheriff’s office illegal gambling and card cheating at the resort was the very same man who later became a sheriff’s deputy and claimed never to have known of any illegal activity at the spa. “There were a lot of people who put their lives on the line,” Grutman says of the Penthouse-La Costa battle. “I was one, Carl Shapiro [the lawyer who took over the trial when Grutman was held in contempt by the judge] was one, Mrs. Grutman was one, and Mike Aguirre was one.”
Besides helping him establish his private practice, the Penthouse case gave Aguirre a certain cachet among local newspaper reporters; the kind of mystique provided by the Penthouse case brought him status as a source. Often as not, the three Rolodexes that sit beside his office phone are turned to journalists’ numbers. Three conversations with two reporters on different stories took place in less than two hours while I leafed through his scrapbook. One reporter who has worked often with Aguirre on stories claims that one business reporter in town is almost an Aguirre mouthpiece. “He wouldn’t have had half his stories if he hadn’t been friends with Aguirre. And Aguirre wouldn’t be half as famous.” One recent Saturday night Aguirre was at dinner with no less than six local reporters whom he had invited to the Old Town Mexican Cafe for a chat with Newsday’s Tom Renner, who was in town to plug his book Mafia Princess and to research a story on gangs among recent U.S. immigrants. When he’s pressed to justify this propinquity, Aguirre protests he’s not in it for publicity. “I’m not running for anything. And my name’s usually never mentioned in their stories.”
Aguirre views his practice as a kind of public one. Like his brother Gary, he specializes in investment and securities frauds — cases that by their natures carry high visibility. Besides the Dominelli suit he’s filed (he’s representing former publisher and mayoral candidate Simon Casady, among others), he’s representing numerous investors who are claiming they were defrauded by contractor Richard McKee and former Charger football star Ron Mix. Are Aguirre’s cases newspaper stories because he knows the reporters so well, or do the reporters know him so well because his cases are good stories?
10:18 a.m., Mon., March 12
We’re in the elevator of the federal building, and meet Warren Reese, a veteran assistant U.S. attorney whom Aguirre knows from his own days in the office. “What case are you here for?” Reese asks. Aguirre says Jack Anderson’s lawyer has moved for a transfer of the case to Washington, D.C., where Anderson’s offices are located. “They don’t seem to want to try the case here in San Diego,” Aguirre says, gloating somewhat, a knowing smile on his lips. Reese just smiles.
Aguirre and one of his seven law clerks, Mike Crowley, himself a former reporter from New Jersey who is in his third year of law school and is handling much of the Van Deerlin- Anderson research, slip into the brown Naugahyde seats in Nielsen.’s courtroom. Van Deerlin walks in after us, looking lean, tan, and very Washingtonian in a blazer. While he’s impeccable in every other way, Van Deerlin shows some nervousness at the fingertips. His nails are bitten back to the bloodline. Van Deerlin, Aguirre, and Crowley have hustled mightily to arrive in court on time, but they are delayed by an ongoing court hearing. Finally, at 11:25, Van Deerlin and Aguirre are called to the plaintiff’s table; Jerome Eggers, who is Anderson’s lawyer, and San Diego attorney Mitchell Lathrop, representing United Features Syndicate, take the defense table.
In April of last year, Anderson named Van Deerlin, along with Teddy Kennedy, as two of a number of Capitol Hill figures who purchased drugs from a small network of pages and doorwatchers on the Hill. Van Deerlin denied the story had any connection to reality and immediately sued Anderson for $5.2 million. Today Anderson and United Features are asking Nielsen to dismiss the case and, if that doesn’t please the court, to send it back to Washington for trial.
Aguirre’s pursuing a compromise of sorts. He'll dismiss two of Anderson’s reporters from any responsibility in libeling Van Deerlin. Nielsen agrees. The judge then knocks back Eggers’s argument that Anderson, because he lives in Washington, for some reason doesn’t fall subject to Southern California jurisdiction. Nielsen says he’s been to an Anderson lecture here himself and announces that “he’s subject to California jurisdiction.” Eggers argues that all the sources and the evidence reside in the D.C. area. Aguirre argues that many witnesses, and readers of the column, reside in San Diego.
Nielsen decides he won’t dismiss the suit and won’t transfer it to D.C. Van Deerlin, Aguirre, and Crowley are elated. A celebration lunch at the Westgate is proposed and all four of us hike eastward along Broadway, the three others somehow making brisker headway than I find comfortable. Is this the success stride?
On the way, I try to get Van Deerlin to say how he came to hire Aguirre to defend him, and Van Deerlin asks Aguirre if he should discuss the case. I tell him I’m not asking him to discuss the merits of his case but the merits of his counsel. ”Oh, in that case he will tell me to shut up,” Van Deerlin cracks. But why Aguirre? I ask again. He isn’t particularly known as a libel lawyer. ”There is the matter of the Penthouse case,” Aguirre says pointedly. True enough, one day you defend ’em, the next you attack ’em.
There is in Aguirre more than just a little of the high moralist, though he knows that if he plays avenging angel, he’s not likely to be universally loved. ”I want to be loved,” he says, ”but it’s hard to do what you think is right and be loved.” People will point out that this is hypocritical cant, that Aguirre wraps himself in do-right cloth while making good money at it. One of his critics says that his prolonged attack on Sheriff Duffy ”was the first and only instance in which he did something for which he didn’t expect anything in return.” Another, who doesn’t want to be named, says that Aguirre is vindictive and capable of severe overreaction when he feels he’s been wronged. And he, too, implies Aguirre is hypocritical: ”Ask him about his uncle, Lou Lipton, the big-time bookie for the Teamsters.”
Lipton, who died in 1980. was a vice president at U.S. National Bank in the 1960s. According to a former federal investigator, who is a friend of Aguirre’s, Lipton was involved in a scheme that allowed a well-known convicted felon to walk into the bank and write a $40,000 check from his company to an innocent third party, who would know nothing about the check. The felon would simply forge the signature as endorsement and Lipton would cash the check and give the money to the felon. ”Lipton was a nice guy,” says the investigator, ”really charming, but he was just a glad- hander. Later on he went to work for the Teamsters as their PR man and he got the Teamsters to make U.S. National Bank their depositor for the pension-fund money. If there is a Mafia in San Diego, he brought in a lot of them. He had this kind of reputation.”
Aguirre doesn’t deny any of that. “I loved him as an uncle. He married my father’s sister, but the first time I met him was when I was in college. Besides that, did my relationship affect what I did? I was back in Washington investigating his employer [Frank Fitzsimmons].”
Just before Fitzsimmons was due to arrive in San Diego to speak to some workers compensation judges at a state bar convention, Aguirre was interviewed by the Daily Transcript on the subject of organized crime. Tribune columnist Neil Morgan picked up a quote from the Daily Transcript story and ran it in a column item on the Fitzsimmons appearance. “How can this country put up with a union dominated by organized crime figures?” was the Aguirre quote. Aguirre says now, "My uncle called me up to say he didn’t appreciate what I’d said and he hung up on me. I never spoke to him again.”
2:20 a.m., Mon., March 12
Back in his office, Aguirre rings Ralph Bennett, the Tribune’s chief editorial page writer, to tell him about the outcome of the Nielsen hearing, but Bennett already knows, probably because he’s close to Van Deerlin, who writes a Tribune column. “Nielsen was really a pearl,” Aguirre tells Bennett.
He’s changed into cords from the regulation dark suit, and is in shirtsleeves with a long cigar as he works the phone and writes up briefs in longhand on yellow legal pads. “Most of my days, this is what I do, reviewing documents.” He gets a call from one of his clerks about a detail in a class-action suit he’s asked the federal court to certify. It’s another securities fraud, this one against a development group called Common Sense, in which he wants to have himself declared the lawyer for hundreds of small investors who have lost money. (On March 26 he won the certification, and when he announced it, staff and clerks in his office joined him in whooping).
Probably one of the reasons Aguirre enjoys the favor of so many local journalists is the opportunities he offers theTn to penetrate stories that are normally inaccessible. In his view, organized crime isn’t necessarily under every bed, but it is sometimes tucked away in the walnut-paneled reaches of board rooms. He’s not even sure about some putative crime fighters.
Late in 1981 Aguirre incorporated his own San Diego Crime Commission. Now, nearly three years later, he’s alienated from his own creation. “This is the first crime commission in history whose first order of business ought to be an in-house investigation,” he says. The commission’s chairman is under federal investigation and is the object of a large civil suit — both actions concerning securities fraud. Nearly a year ago, Aguirre began attempts to remove the chairman, failing each time to persuade other commissioners to put distance between themselves and the nominal head of the commission. (When, after Aguirre failed even to get a second to his motion last month for the chairman’s removal, Tom Blair in his Union column of March 23 congratulated the commission for setting “a healthy precedent” of not judging the man before the government does, and Aguirre was driven to say, “How do you like that? The man has to be guilty before they’ll investigate him.”) The irony began when Aguirre went about finding a suitably impressive person to head the commission. He settled on Everitt “Nick” Carter. Carter is chairman of Oak Industries, the cable television components manufacturer that back in 1981 was flying high on the New York Stock Exchange and reporting record annual profits of $30 million. Aguirre was to be president of the commission and wrote himself into the bylaws as the officer who would conduct its meetings.
A few months later, in early 1982, while he was running for Congress and helping Penthouse defend itself, Aguirre went to Bill Kolender and asked the police chief to request a grand jury probe into organized crime in San Diego. The San Diego Crime Commission would, of course, have served to generate community support for the probe — not to mention provide Aguirre another highly visible platform on which to stand in the race against Bates. Kolender nixed the idea of the probe, saying that his own intelligence unit was on top of the problem of organized crime, a problem he had just told city council was growing.
Understandably, the crime commission lay fallow as Aguirre plowed his other fields. Through 1982 not much of anything was accomplished, save for the contacting of twenty-s£ven prospective commission members who were, by and large, merchants and chief executive officers of large San Diego corporations. By the time Aguirre got actively interested in the project again, in 1983, he found that Carter and the commission’s secretary, Jim Vaus, whom he also had appointed, had formed an alliance that was not in the mood to take orders from Aguirre. But Aguirre was impatient over a lack of meetings and Vaus’s and Carter’s apparent refusal to induct the twenty-seven commissioners, while Vaus and Carter accused Aguirre of using the commission to pursue his crusade against Duffy’s nomination to the national crime board.
The bitterness climaxed in a November meeting of the three, to which Aguirre took with him a court reporter to record the proceedings. The three fought over who had the right to chair the meeting, with Vaus and Carter incorrectly arguing (according to the bylaws) that it was Carter’s. Aguirre was blamed by Vaus for the lack of meetings, but Aguirre forced the introduction of an August 3 letter in which Vaus asked Carter why Carter had been unavailable for commission business and warned that “I don’t think we can keep the Crime Commission alive much longer without action.” Vaus and Carter asked Aguirre to resign, Aguirre asked Carter and Vaus to resign. The stalemate continues today, though Aguirre is no longer active in the commission’s business and leaves its affairs for Vaus to run. Carter is more or less disabled.
Since mid-1983 Nick Carter has had to fight off a huge civil suit accusing him of fraud for having misled shareholders as to the health of Oak Industries. The suit, now certified a class- action suit that is being argued by local firm Milberg, Weiss, Bershad, Spec- thrie and Lerach, alleges that Carter knew and failed to disclose that Oak tuning devices were defective and that a satellite broadcasting deal was falling through. Worse luck for Carter, the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating him for extensive “self-dealing,” the most serious charge being that he assigned three million dollars of Oak Industries headquarters interior decorating work to a firm owned by his wife. The civil suit also alleges that other Oak contracts went without bids to friends of Carter’s and to other family members.
Aguirre delights in the irony of a San Diego crime commission whose chairman, even though Aguirre sought him out, is himself under federal investigation. “Their first public program is a one-day seminar open to the public on how to avoid investment fraud. They ought to just hold the meeting and ask Nick Carter not to do business.”
4:57 a.m., Mon., Match 12
Terry Knoepp, former U.S. Attorney in the 1970s, returns an earlier Aguirre call. Publicist Don Harrison had mentioned that Knoepp was providing legal advice to advocates of the gambling ship at the rules committee meeting at city hall and Aguirre wasted no time»ringing up Knoepp. “Hey, did you knbw you were introduced as the attorney for Crown today?”
“Well, Harrison made out you were their attorney.”
“Well, I just hope your name isn’t in the paper.”
They exchange a few more words. (Later, Knoepp tells me that it is the Consortium, not Crown, that has asked him to help determine whether a gambling ship can be operated legally and still call only in San Diego Harbor.)
It’s past 5:00 p.m. now, too late to do business, and Aguirre wants to talk politics. “I don’t mean to keep coming back to Duffy and Bates, but those were experiences ... in which nobody knew who the hell I was. Bates did me severe damage with people. Duffy’s a different experience, but I was green when I ran against Bates. I didn’t understand the political system wasn’t interested in change. ...”
There’s a phone interruption. Councilman Bill Mitchell proposes he and Aguirre get a beer in thirty minutes.
He returns to Bates. “He sends out these certificates once a month — Citizen of the Month. Who cares who’s citizen of the month? It’s not a caring thing, it’s cynical. What has he done about the condition of Market Street?
Something’s been bothering me about Aguirre. Most of the politicians he attacks are Democrats. If he truly wants to accomplish political reform, why isn’t he attacking Republicans too? “Internal criticism. It’s healthy. I expect the Republicans to be Republicans. That’s why I’m a Democrat. What I’d like to see changed is the inadequacy of our representatives. Wadie [Deddeh] and Pete [Chacon] and Lucy and Jim — what have they done to transform the Democrats into the majority party? Besides, Duffy isn’t a Democrat. And I’m attacking Cleator.”
I say he’s only attacking a Cleator project.
“I’m doing more than that. I’ve gone to the D.A. about the cruise ship.”
I ask him to name some Democrats he likes and he pauses and slowly names Lionel Van Deerlin, Simon Casady (another client of his), Mike Gotch, and Phil Conner, county central committee chairman. But isn’t it possible that in attacking mostly Democrats he’s weakening his own party, doing the Republicans’ work for them? “Weakening the party? Could be. I hope not. I’d hate to think that. But the Democratic Party has to stand for something. I don’t think anything I do now is hurting the party.”
It’s time to meet Mitchell for a few beers at Frenchy Marseilles, and we walk out into the lobby of his office. "The social-change movement was so much a part of my upbringing,” he says. “There was such a seriousness of purpose. I still believe if you're not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Just before we walk out the door he stops to pick up some stray messages left for him with the receptionist, who has long since gone home. He looks at one, puzzled, maybe even concerned, and I ask him what it is. “It’s an invitation to a Pete Wilson fundraiser. I don’t know why they’re sending one to me.”