San Diego 'We are losing the war," lamented Kris Michell, an aide to Mayor Sanders, Saturday morning, April 22, at Ortega's restaurant in Ocean Beach. That's according to my source -- to be identified in this column by the unisex appellation "Pat" -- who was sitting in the next booth, overhearing what appeared to be a Sanders administration strategy session. Understandably, the source does not want to be identified.
Michell, Sanders's director of community and legislative services, was huddling that morning with Mayor Sanders, former assistant city attorney Les Girard, and Fred Sainz, another mayoral aide. The enemy Michell was attacking was city attorney Mike Aguirre, who by most reports is indeed winning the public opinion war in his efforts to roll back pension benefits granted in 1996 and 2002.
"I interpreted the meeting as the mayor's camp versus Mike Aguirre," says Pat. "It seemed like a planning session," as the group "tried to figure out" how to neutralize and besmirch Aguirre.
Sanders took a telephone call, then left early. Pat couldn't definitively catch what the mayor said. "Les Girard did most of the talking, and the others were agreeing," says Pat. After a lengthy anti-Aguirre colloquy, Girard was next to leave; Michell and Sainz stayed on to lay some more plans.
A few days later, Sainz told one publication that the mayor's office was unhappy with actions of the city attorney's office in one case. Around the same time, former mayor Dick Murphy and council president Scott Peters filed papers to disqualify Aguirre and his staff from appearing in a pension-related case. It appears the jihad is gaining momentum.
Initially, the only person Pat recognized was Sanders. "It was bizarre. What was he doing in Ocean Beach? What was so shocking was why would he sit and talk in public?" Pat recalls thinking. (Ortega's employees are still talking about Sanders's surprise visit.) Says Pat, "He probably didn't think he would be recognized." Or overheard. Then Pat was provided with photographs of others who might have been there and identified Michell, Sainz, and Girard.
They are corporate-welfare cheerleaders. Michell worked for former mayor Susan Golding from 1994 to 1998 and was a lobbyist for the Padres. Sainz, Sanders's communications director, was deputy chief of staff under Golding and worked on the ballot campaign for the Padres ballpark. Later, he handled public affairs for the Convention Center. When Sanders named Michell and Sainz to their posts, city hall reformers suspected that there would be no new breeze wafting through the City's fetid air. Establishment vassals were still in power.
Girard left his job as assistant city attorney in September of last year to join the law firm of McKenna Long & Aldridge. He had been appointed assistant city attorney in 1966. On his law firm profile sheet, he boasts that he oversaw projects such as the City's deals with the Padres and Chargers -- hardly accomplishments to brag about, since in both cases San Diego got outlawyered, or more to the point, fleeced.
Girard has been called to testify in the pension investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the federal grand jury. The City is paying his legal bills, although he is not a subject of the probes.
I e-mailed Sanders, Michell, Sainz, and Girard and gave each a day and a half to respond to a list of questions. None replied. A Reader attorney asked Sanders's office for documents -- e-mails, letters, etc. -- about the breakfast session. Press assistant Kevin Klein quickly came back and said there were no documents related to the "alleged meeting."
The principals may be silent now, but there was a lot of talk on April 22 at Ortega's, according to Pat. "They wanted to have outside counsel to review Mike's decision on the budget problem," says Pat, referring to Aguirre's opinion that pension obligation bonds must go to the voters. "But they said the problem was that Mike would have to sign off on any such move." In both the public and private sectors, a honcho not liking a lawyer's opinion will go shopping for a lawyer who will say the reverse -- for a price. In this sense, lawyers are like consultants: they give the clients an opinion they want to hear.
"Then they moved on to Aguirre's litigation in private practice," says Pat. "They said, 'We should get what his record was -- wins, losses.' They said he has not won cases as he said he did. But they asked, 'How do we do that? He has filed cases in all types of jurisdictions -- New Jersey, etc.' " According to Pat, the plan was to see if Aguirre was claiming court victories in cases that were actually won by subordinates.
Then the conversation drifted to alleged low morale within the city attorney's office. The participants talked about the complaint filed last month by deputy city attorney Amy Lepine, who told the City's equal opportunity investigations office that Aguirre compliments women on their appearance and allegedly deems women inferior to men. She filed her complaint after Aguirre supposedly told her what to say in a pension hearing.
According to Pat, the breakfast group discussed whether Lepine had not been prepared for a hearing and Aguirre had been forced to step in for her. Aguirre may have been "retaliating," Pat says one of the participants speculated. A spokesperson in the city attorney's office acknowledges that Aguirre stepped in for her at one point in the hearing but said that Lepine was never demoted and had resigned.
The breakfast strategists thought that Anita Noone, who had been temporarily in charge of hiring, had been demoted. She did not respond to my e-mail. A city attorney spokesperson said Noone is working on litigation as an assistant city attorney and has not been demoted.
The Ortega's huddlers speculated that Chris Morris, chief of the criminal division, had been demoted or was unhappy. Morris responded to my e-mail: It's "not true at all," he says. "I was appointed head of the criminal division after the individual heads of the criminal division specifically asked Mike to send me here. I am enjoying my time in the criminal division."
A breakfast clubber mentioned "getting Human Resources records to see how many others have complained" about Aguirre, according to Pat. However, Pat didn't get the impression that the anti-Aguirre group planned to get personnel records illegally. "It was more like 'it would be great to have them,' " says Pat.
The McKenna Long & Aldridge profile says, "Les Girard focuses his practice primarily on assisting clients with government affairs issues." The obvious question: is he trying to get San Diego City business? (He would have a one-year waiting period from September 2005 before he could take on such a job.) But, of course, he did not respond to questions. A source in the city attorney's office says Girard has been trying to drum up business there. Aguirre would have to approve any such contract.
Mayor Sanders attended the breakfast session but apparently did not toss around anti-Aguirre invective. But there is a nagging question: why was he in attendance when the topic was how to slam Aguirre, whom the mayor is at least pretending to embrace publicly?
"I find it hard to believe Jerry Sanders would do such a thing," says Aguirre. "A smear campaign and dirty tricks -- I don't think the mayor would participate in or condone such a thing."