Critics said Bersin was spending too much time schmoozing with members of the tightly knit Tijuana business establishment and friends of his father-in-law and not enough looking into money-laundering schemes used by the drug cartels. He called for easier border crossings for business people and trade and was a regular draw at banquets and business tributes on both sides of the border.
In 1997, he endorsed a controversial private real-estate venture called the International Gateway of the Americas, a $192 million shopping mall, duty-free zone, and hotel to be built on the U.S. side of the border just west of the existing Tijuana border crossing. The new development was to feature a new opening to Mexico in the form of a pedestrian bridge. The bridge had the support of the city’s big financial interests but was criticized by federal law enforcement officials, who believed it would become a nightmare to police.
Bersin’s role in pushing the project forward was hailed by a Union-Tribune editorial in March 1998. “When the proposed International Gateway of the Americas Project was going nowhere, it was Bersin who stepped in and cut through the red tape to get the border development project on track,” the editorial said. “This innovative enterprise would transform a blighted area west of the San Ysidro border crossing into a development of duty-free stores, restaurants, a World Trade Center complex, a hotel, and meeting facilities.”
Bersin continued to lobby for the project even after he had stepped down as U.S. Attorney in early 1998. In December 1998, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times noted, “The campaign crested in September when a parade of boosters, including the head of Tijuana’s economic development council and former U.S. Attorney and border czar Alan Bersin, took turns praising likely benefits to the region’s economy and image during a meeting of a U.S.–Mexico panel that reviews new border crossings.”
The project drew fierce opposition from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which stated in a letter that “a requirement to conduct pedestrian inspections at another location at any distance from the existing inspection facility would result in significant disruption of customer service and law enforcement operations.” Ultimately, the pedestrian bridge was dropped from the project, though the mall was allowed to proceed.
Though not widely known to the public, Bersin had a personal financial stake in border real estate held with his father-in-law and other family members. According to an agreement recorded October 2, 1996, Bersin, his wife Lisa, along with Stan and Pauline Foster and Marliskar, a family-related partnership, had formed Otay Terminal, a general partnership.
A disclosure Bersin filed with the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., showed that Otay Terminal owned four properties, including a trucking facility at 6930 Cactus Court on San Diego’s Otay Mesa, less than 2000 feet from the border with Mexico.
A trust controlled by Foster and his wife Pauline purchased the land on January 14, 1992, for $880,500, according to county records. Foster built a truck terminal and offices on the parcel, finishing the project on July 20, 1992, a notice of completion says. On January 14, 2003, the partnership sold the property for $3.5 million.
In a September 1998 interview with the Reader, Bersin said, “It’s a partnership in which my wife and I have an interest. I don’t know when we made it, but it’s something my father-in-law organized. It’s a truck — Consolidated Freight — transfer point.” The Otay property, he said, was the first piece of real estate acquired by the partnership.
“That’s why it’s called the Otay partnership.... And then there were other investments made in other properties. Kearny Mesa is one — actually two in Kearny Mesa. I guess there’s one in Vista. My wife and I invested in the partnership in cash, that’s what the investment was.” Bersin said that the Otay Mesa purchase was made in 1992, “before I was U.S. Attorney,” and later put into the Otay Terminal partnership.
In the same interview, Bersin repeated his support for the Gateway project. “Tijuana and San Diego and Customs and INS and GSA are all trying to get — and it’s something that I was, that I am supportive of, is to be able to develop the San Ysidro gateway between Tijuana and San Diego so that it reflects the kind of region that we’re developing and lets the region, San Diego and Tijuana, take charge of their destiny, because if we wait for federal governments to do it, we will never get the kind of port of entry that we need to build this U.S.–Mexico border region.”
His role in the project, Bersin said, was “to be part of a border port council that considered it and is recommending it to the U.S. and Mexican authorities. There are federal, state, and local jurisdictions on both sides of the border that are building a regional consensus to get a recommendation. You need a permit to build this cross-border development.
“What this would do would increase the lanes. As we’ve improved the travel time between Tijuana and San Diego, it’s become clear [that] like everything, when you make it easier to get back and forth between the two cities, more cars come, and what’s pretty clear now is that the port of entry that was built in the mid-’70s is not capable of handling the traffic between the two cities.
“We need more lanes and a reconfigured pedestrian area. That’s what customs, INS on this side, working with GSA, is doing. And really what the breakthrough is is that Tijuana and San Diego have agreed on a common development plan.”
Bersin said no conflict of interest arose from his ownership in the Otay Terminal partnership and his role as United States Attorney and border czar. “No, because, first of all, it’s fully disclosed, and it had no bearing on — you know, the requirement is to disclose it. Frankly, none of the decisions I made as a prosecutor were affected by that.”