San Diego See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. According to a poll taken three months ago, 63.4 percent of city residents believe thatpolitics and government are no more corrupt here than in any other city.
"I hope that's not the case," says onetime mayoral candidate, attorney Pat Shea. "How depressing it would be to think that governments are the same everywhere."
The December polling by Competitive Edge Research & Communication found that 25.9 percent of county residents believe there is no crisis at all in local political ethics, and only 44.1 percent believe political ethics have become a serious crisis or worse.
That same month, the Associated Press-Ipsos poll asked Americans about the state of national politics. For 88 percent of respondents, unethical political behavior and corruption had hit the serious level. That's double the percentage of San Diegans believing the local crisis is serious.
Amazing? Unfortunately, it's not. Sun-soaked San Diegans have long looked the other way -- say, toward the beach or the golf course. Apathy, thy name is San Diego. That's why it's a perfect environment for corruption. San Diego is like Green Bay on a Sunday afternoon when the Packers are playing. You can rob any bank or store at will; nobody is paying attention. That's why establishment overlords have been picking San Diegans' pockets for decades.
"Most county residents are hallucinating," says Steve Erie, political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "This is one of the most corrupt cities in the country and has been for years. The thing we excel at is publicity and marketing ourselves. The gullibility factor is high. People read the Union-Tribune or watch feel-good TV news shows. Cronyism, the old boys' network, back-scratching have been hallmarks of San Diego from day one." He notes that fellow academic Mike Davis (University of California, Irvine), author of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, calls San Diego the most corrupt city on the West Coast.
Erie is now working on a book: Trouble in Paradise: Fiscal Crisis and Political Turmoil in San Diego. He expects that Stanford University Press will have it out by 2008. It has a chapter on white-collar crime in the city. "People forget it is Fleece City. This is a town of easy money and fast money and loose morals," says Erie, who has studied municipal corruption all around the United States. "It is amateur hour in San Diego in charter reform, water, infrastructure, airports, and that creates opportunities for corruption. We don't conduct enough of the public's business in public, and that may be one reason respondents to the poll are out of it. We do a great job of hiding our dirty linen. We're both corrupt and inefficient as well."
Says Jim Mills, former president pro tem of the state senate, "The political problem in San Diego is that it is inherently corrupt because it is dominated by major contributors, by developers. In the last mayoral election, the developers decided whom they wanted to be mayor and put up the money to get their candidate elected."
"San Diegans are a little more laid-back than people in other communities," says Ed Miller, who was San Diego's first U.S. attorney, from 1966 to 1969, then was district attorney from 1971 to 1995. In addition, "There is a lot of wealth in San Diego." That factor and the gullibility mean that "there are very educated, knowledgeable people who are getting taken by crooks every day," although Miller thinks the Competitive Edge poll is not on the mark: "The man on the street has a low regard for local government."
John Nienstedt, president of Competitive Edge, says that 30 years ago, "San Diegans had a holier-than-thou, sanctimonious feeling about their city. It has evaporated." But he won't call current residents gullible.
In its December poll, Competitive Edge played a semantic trick on respondents. When the euphemism "elected officials" was substituted for "politicians," the ethics concern plunged. More county residents (34.4 percent) believed there was no ethical crisis among "elected officials" than believed there was a serious crisis or worse (34 percent).
"It just shows that people aren't very smart," says activist Mel Shapiro. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. In this case, they both smell" (but not sweet).
Perhaps Competitive Edge unknowingly came up with the answer in February of this year. In its monthly poll, it found that 46 percent of county adults have smoked pot at some time. Are they still smoking it?
By December of last year when the poll was taken, City (and County) corruption was there for all to see. The city employees' pension pot had been deliberately underfunded for ten years, and bond investors had been kept in the dark. There had been no City audit for three years, and San Diego was shut out of the bond market. City leaders had fudged annual budget figures. Neighborhood services had declined; the infrastructure continued to deteriorate; police and fire equipment and personnel were inadequate because money had been drained off for corporate-welfare projects.
A city auditor and two city managers had resigned. Members of the pension board had been charged with crimes. The federal government had been investigating the pension mess for almost two years. A councilmember and lobbyist had been convicted in the criminal Strippergate trial. The facts in the Duke Cunningham bribe scandal were on the table, he had resigned his post in Congress, and he pleaded guilty in late November.
At city hall, "An awful lot of people had to cooperate and work together to create planned chaos," says Shea, who believes auditing firms have found there was "an irregular financial management structure" and it had been created deliberately, "brick by brick."
San Diego "city government has been one of the most corrupt in the U.S.," says city attorney Mike Aguirre, who also puts part of the blame on the Union-Tribune. "To understate the problem does a disservice to the city. Several members of council haven't come to terms with the wrongdoing." They continue to shovel taxpayers' money -- above $30 million by now -- to forensic consultants such as Kroll Inc. and accounting firm KPMG, which is supposed to provide an audit of the 2003 books.
"The only function Kroll is playing is to keep the investigation open so the councilmembers can say the investigation is not yet complete," says Aguirre. "KPMG is doing everything it can to maximize Kroll's income."
"The SEC is investigating, the FBI is investigating," says Shapiro. "What is it that neither of these agencies can do with subpoena power that Kroll can do without subpoena power?"
Mayor Jerry Sanders delivered his first State of the City speech a month after the Competitive Edge poll was taken. He declared the City "faces the most serious financial, organization, and ethical crisis in its history." The philosophy around city hall had been "delay, deny, or deceive," quoth he, pledging to change things without "smoke-and-mirror tricks."
Then he went out and hired people from the old-boy-girl network that had gotten the City into trouble: from the Golding administration, the school district, the convention center, the Padres, and developers. Sanders declared that straightening out City-owned real estate assets was a key priority, so he assigned the task to a former lawyer for the trust and foundation of a notorious Las Vegas gangster.
Sanders admits the job has proven to be more complicated than he believed when he was making his many campaign promises. But he claims he has made headway in his first 90 days. He hopes to get municipal labor unions to agree to concessions, but it hasn't happened yet. He says Kroll will complete its probe in two months and KPMG will get the 2003 audit out shortly after that, and the City may return to the bond market this year. That remains to be seen.
The mainstream media report that Sanders is cleaning up the mess. But then, they were just as enthusiastic about the mayors who created the mess. Why tell San Diegans something they don't want to hear?