"Bar launches Aguirre inquiry,” shouted a Union-Tribune headline November 20, 2007. It was followed by many others: “State bar seeks details of meeting with Aguirre” and “Bar subpoenas bills of firms tied to Aguirre,” for just two examples. Thus, in 2007 and 2008 did the Union-Tribune keep reminding its readers of the State Bar of California’s investigation of then–city attorney Mike Aguirre, who was in office from 2004 to 2008. Verily, the bar’s investigation was the centerpiece of the U-T’s smear campaign against Aguirre.
But as I revealed on my blog January 30, those investigations have been concluded, and the bar says that no further action is warranted on any of the multiple charges against him. The bar won’t discuss the case as a matter of policy.
The stories cited above were written by Alex Roth, who is now a publicist for Mayor Jerry Sanders. Hmm. One Chris Reed, who then had a blog for the U-T, kept up the drumbeat in attack after attack. One headline was “Has West Coast Mike violated state bar’s rules of professional conduct?” This screed compared Aguirre (“West Coast Mike”) with Mike Nifong, the North Carolina prosecutor who disgraced himself and his profession by falsely charging Duke University lacrosse players with rape. Other Reed harangues were equally scurrilous.
The U-T’s editorial page was the worst, as then–editorial-writer Bob Kittle shrieked about Aguirre, constantly reminding readers that the then–city attorney was being investigated by the bar. Roth, Reed, and Kittle weren’t the only staffers obsessed with Aguirre. The hatred went all the way to the top of the organization, and Aguirre fought back — for example, hosting a radio talk show that scorched the U-T.
The U-T did print some objective information on Aguirre, however. It revealed that one of the San Diego lawyers who was interviewed at length by the bar was then–city council president Scott Peters. Later, in 2008, Peters ran unsuccessfully in the primary against Aguirre — reminding the voters that Aguirre was under investigation by the state bar. Sigh. San Diego politics.
Publicly, Peters and Kittle, in particular, railed about Aguirre’s supposed lack of ethics. As I have reported earlier, on January 19, 2004, Peters and Kittle met at a breakfast. Peters handed Kittle an op-ed piece that he wanted placed in the paper. By email, Kittle thanked Peters for making sure that telephone poles were taken down near his house and then asked another favor: would Peters ask traffic authorities to put up more signs to slow down speeding cars near the Kittle residence? The op-ed ran, and shortly, Peters came in to the U-T for a preelection interview. Bingo! Enthused the U-T’s editorial, “We like Peters’ reserved demeanor and hard work, and we heartily endorse him.”
As I said: sigh. It was quintessential San Diego politics and the marriage of the U-T with pols who are friends of the establishment — something Aguirre wasn’t.
The anti-Aguirre defamation campaign was clearly orchestrated by the downtown establishment — with the help of City of San Diego employees guarding their excessive pay and pensions and the Union-Tribune protecting, as usual, the overlords.
When he was in office, Aguirre stated that he represented all the people, not just City of San Diego employees. Thus, he was sometimes suing and sometimes defending the same people. For example, four police officers who had unsuccessfully sued him in court for extortion complained to the bar that he had this conflict. They struck out a second time. There was a similar conflict charge made about his role in pension matters. There was a complaint that when he told La Jolla residents that the City may have been partially responsible for a landslide, he should have represented the City’s side only.
He was charged with awarding exorbitant fees to the law firm Latham & Watkins and having too cozy a relationship with a mediator, retired U.S. magistrate judge Harry McCue. He was charged with going ahead with a legal action without the council’s permission; however, he was able to show that the council had told him to go ahead with the suit but not in the council’s name. These charges didn’t stick.
Nor did allegations that he had released confidential information and had asked a former assistant city attorney to leak confidential emails to the press. A silly charge that he had served individuals with a complaint instead of their lawyers didn’t fly.
A major complainant was Tom Story, who was in the headlines several years ago. Story had been high in the administration of Dick Murphy, who resigned as mayor under a cloud. Like all too many bureaucrats, Story had taken his knowledge of city hall backstairs maneuvers to the private sector; he joined Sunroad Enterprises, headed by Aaron Feldman, a friend of Mayor Jerry Sanders. Sunroad erected a building near Montgomery Field. The building’s height violated federal and state laws. Aguirre sued and Sunroad countersued. In a separate suit, Aguirre sued Story for breaking rules on how soon a former bureaucrat can contact those in government he had worked with.
Superior court judge Michael Wellington, in a highly emotional decision, linked the two cases, claiming that Aguirre was trying to influence the civil suit by filing the criminal suit against Story. The judge said Aguirre couldn’t prosecute the Story case, but he never named anyone who could. Wellington had received a letter from District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis the day before his dubious decision.
But, oh, how the U-T editorial page wailed about Aguirre’s “sham prosecution” and wept for Story’s soiled reputation. “Mike Aguirre is about anything but fairness,” complained one editorial. Another bawled of “trumped-up charges,” calling Aguirre “City Hall’s bully.”
When, finally, Aguirre prevailed and Sunroad reduced the size of the building, the U-T made it sound like a victory for the mayor, who had been trying to get Feldman off the hook.
Aguirre’s representative told the bar that the civil and criminal cases were different; the charges against Story were not limited to the Sunroad matter, and Aguirre had not engaged in any misconduct in the case, which was actually a singular victory for him.
The bar determined that in Aguirre’s case, there was no reasonable cause to bring a complaint for breach of professional standards. But the smear campaign worked. Aguirre was defeated overwhelmingly for reelection. Now, others who would oppose the downtown moguls are afraid to come forward, while the pension deficit remains a cancer and downtown real estate interests still get everything they want at the expense of schools, infrastructure, libraries, and basic maintenance.
Aguirre made mistakes while he was in office — in particular, he took on too much reform too quickly. He spoke out several times when he should have stayed quiet. The U-T is under new management but is not changing its ways very rapidly. San Diego’s inbred corruption remains unchallenged.