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Tuesday, December 20, 2005 | City Attorney Mike Aguirre was pressed about his own ethics Monday, a role reversal for an official who spent his first year in office policing the ethics and legality of actions at City Hall.
Aguirre, who has seldom balked at the chance to point out mismanagement or allegedly illegal behavior, was forced to defend his own actions after the city’s Ethics Commission fined him $9,000 because his political campaign failed to properly record expenses. The committee overseeing his race for city attorney in 2004 is one among the several campaigns the city’s in-house watchdog has selected to audit.
Additionally, the president of the Municipal Employees Association criticized Aguirre for boosting his deputies’ pay while the city is mired in an unprecedented financial crisis. The 6,000 white-collar city workers represented by MEA received a pay freeze in its current labor pact and workers now pay more to the pension system out of their own paychecks.
Aguirre defended himself on both accounts, saying he was already taking corrective steps to reconcile his campaign’s bookkeeping before the Ethics Commission launched its probe this spring. He also rebuked MEA president Judie Italiano’s accusations, saying the pay increases were given to individuals who took on more responsibility or had been recruited from high-paying jobs at private firms.
The city attorney admitted that he had to take responsibility for the errors found in his campaign’s financial records and agreed to the fine. He said he did not see the audit as being political in nature, despite having engaged in a number of low-key flaps with the Ethics Commission this year.
“I made a judgment to resolve the issue with the Ethics Commission and they were very professional in the way they dealt with it,” he said.
Stacy Fulhorst, the commission’s executive director, said that the two violations showed a “systemic” problem with the campaign’s bookkeeping.
Fulhorst noted that the $316,000 in undisclosed expenses accounted for about 40 percent of Aguirre’s expenditures.
“It’s very important that these expenditures are disclosed because these are campaign activities that the public should know about,” she said.
The Ethics Commission found that Aguirre’s committee did not reveal how hired hands spent money for the campaign while also only reporting bills when they were paid, but not when they were received.
The audit of Aguirre’s campaign finances shows that the city attorney’s committee failed to report 37 instances when a campaign staffer or independent contractor working for Aguirre spent more than $500 on campaign expenses. About $316,000 was spent directly by others, mostly on advertisements or postage fees for campaign mailers, which should have been reported, the commission’s report states.
Aguirre also failed to report $55,000 in expenses that his campaign incurred but did not pay until the period designated for reporting those costs had expired.
Fulhorst said that the commission found no intentional wrongdoing and noted that Aguirre tried to reconcile the problems at a very early stage. Aguirre said that he had to comply with the city’s regulations if he expected others in the municipal government to follow suit.
“The fact still remains that we didn’t do it correctly the first time,” Aguirre said. “I am in a position that I am asking others to comply with the law, both in the letter and the spirit.”
Aguirre has asked for officials and employees to comply with the various investigations – including his own – into the city’s financial disclosure practices and pension funding deals.
In addition to the city’s ongoing probes, San Diego has been strapped for cash as it grapples with a fiscal crisis highlighted by a ballooning pension deficit. The city’s obligation to its retirement system, which currently has a deficit of at least $1.37 billion, has chewed up a significant chunk of the government’s everyday spending.
Italiano, the MEA president, said it was inappropriate for Aguirre to be doling pay raises to the attorneys in his office when members of her union and others are sacrificing their pay to keep the city’s fiscal ship afloat.
According to a response she received from a public records request she filed, 18 lawyers and staff members in the City Attorney’s Office have received pay increases of at least 10 percent in the last year. Executive Assistant City Attorney Don McGrath received a 95 percent increase from last fiscal year, figures show, putting his current salary at nearly $110,000. The office’s spokeswoman, Maria Velasquez, received an 11-percent boost, putting her salary at $109,000, the figures state.
“We would like to ask Aguirre why that’s fair,” Italiano said. “I’m not saying their salaries are too high or that they don’t deserve it, it’s just totally unfair when the rest of the family’s in dire straits and another set of kids get a raise.”
Aguirre said that salaries changed when he rearranged duties in his office upon his election, with many attorneys taking on more responsibility. Some lawyers in the office appear to have great salaries that actually pale in comparison to what they made as private attorneys, he said.
The city attorney reiterated his belief that pension benefit enhancements granted in the last decade are illegal – including those given to his own employees. But he noted that Italiano was instrumental in arranging the benefit enhancements he argues are illegal. Italiano said she is proud of the increases her union earned.
Furthermore, his office was staying within the budget the City Council approved at the beginning of the fiscal year, which began in June.
Councilman Scott Peters said that the council approved a larger budget for the City Attorney’s Office after Aguirre pledged that the office was going to recover more in lawsuits with a larger staff. He said it was difficult to tell whether the extra money was paying off.
“I know from being a lawyer a lot of these things take time to develop, but I’m not aware of any judgments that he’s won that have resulted from us giving him more money,” Peters said. “I think we should all be conscious of our budget at this time, and I hope the city attorney is aware of this as well.”
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