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Friday, July 01, 2005 | City Hall corruption begins to seem like old news. It will seem forever before we can transfer City Hall power to a new team. Many would welcome a Central American coup; but we honor democratic law, no matter how tedious.
Mayor Murphy set a worthy example by resigning. That is too much to expect of Michael Zucchet and Ralph Inzunza, the two councilmen who face felony charges. Entirely aside from needing their jobs, it could seem to them, their families and attorneys to be an admission of guilt.
So we await the next shoe to fall. Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney, has been on the case for two years. Bonnie Dumanis, the district attorney, is close behind. Neither seems likely to soften any punches. But such cases as theirs take many months to prepare. It is their business not to be embarrassed by mistrials.
Into this cone of silence steps the voluble Michael J. Aguirre, the city attorney who won election over an old-regime candidate by the narrowest of margins. Aguirre simply cannot tolerate silence, not when he is so adept at filling it. San Diego needs him just now. He says the city is being “bled dry” by its lawyers, with more than $11 million spent so far.
“There’s another million due on council and city officials, and we have months to go,” he said. “The net cost for the council’s wrongdoing will be over $13 million. That amount would fund the 6-to-6 library program, all the library hour cuts and the Recreation Center cuts.”
Were anyone else our city attorney, it would seem incongruous that so many San Diegans deplored his volubility but were quick to add that he is the right man in the right place at the right time. His mortar fire now moves toward the current City Council, which he regards as part of the problem.
“Each member stood and confessed an amount of city legal fees for which they were responsible, like: I am a council member … with a personal interest in the matter to approve the city paying my legal fees of (thousands of dollars). I will not be voting.”
Then, as Aguirre watched, “the council member left his seat, disappeared into the hallway while a vote was taken to approve their personal legal bill. The absent member returned and the procession moved on, from Peters and Zucchet across to Murphy… It was quite a sight to behold. And yet there was not a word about it in the media.”
Aguirre argues that the council did not want a better accounting “because it had no interest in getting a report that the council had done something wrong. Moreover, V&E was defending the city before the SEC.
“If that were the case,” he tells Voice, “it would have happened long ago. What the council wanted was to contain the story that their mistakes and consequential legal defense has cost the city over $13 million.”
The resulting sequence of events went like this: After KPMG issued its ruling, V&E, the other accounting firm, agreed to draw up a second report. The city had paid $2.6 million for its first botched report, Aguirre says. “It was a complete failure of duty by V&E and KPMG to not have got V&E’s work plan down before issuing its first report.
“Both firms should have been on the same track. V&E was defending the city before the Securities and Exchange Commission. The problem now is that there is not going to be a second report. The city’s outside audit committee [the Kroll Group], which is closely aligned with V&E, has decided V&E will not issue a second report.
“If there is not to be a second report to reconcile, then why do we need Kroll? An even better question is why does the city need Kroll’s outside law firm, Willkie, Farr? The bill for the two now is about $2 million.”
The answer, in Aguirre’s opinion, is full of foreboding: “The game plan from the council’s point of view is to have a perpetual investigation that postpones any embarrassing conclusions for as long as possible, no matter how much the city has to spend. The experts go along to keep the fees flowing. The word on the street in New York and Washington legal circles is that San Diego is easy money.”