Wednesday, May 17, 2006 | EDITORIAL
In July 2005, City Attorney Mike Aguirre announced the creation of the Lease and Contract Task Force, whose job will be to “investigate major leases and contracts between the city and private parties.”
That’s a worthy goal.
For far too long, the city’s legal department had merely been a rubber stamp – and a sloppy one – for the disastrous and perhaps even corrupt policies that emerged from behind closed doors. It will be nice to see what a group of well-trained lawyers and investigators can research and turn over to Aguirre so that the outspoken city attorney can relay his conclusions about public leases to taxpayers.
That may take awhile. While Aguirre has brought much-needed checks and balances to City Hall, he has had trouble concluding numerous investigations. Yet he never has trouble announcing a new area or occurrence worth investigating.
Though conflict can be good, Aguirre has used unfortunate tactics at times to provoke it. The most unsettling of which, to us, is his willingness to impugn a person’s integrity at the blink of an eye. Part – but not all – of the venom his angry critics direct at him can be explained by the fact that he has repeatedly initiated and publicized investigations into individuals without ever following up on them.
To date, Aguirre has failed to follow up on at least six promised investigations into occurrences within the city.
In April 2005, he claimed to be investigating alleged conflict of interest violations by former Mayor Dick Murphy and other city officials related to a controversial program that allowed city employees to purchase “years” and apply them to their future retirement expectations. Later that year, spurred by an article in voiceofsandiego.org, Aguirre announced an investigation into the relationship between former City Councilman Mike Gotch and current Councilman Jim Madaffer.
He said his public integrity unit was on the case.
In December 2005, Aguirre said he had ordered an investigation into his own office after it was revealed that the city had agreed to indemnify the director of human resources after a legally questionable benefit was granted to firefighters union President Ron Saathoff.
Aguirre later let it be known that he was investigating the county Board of Supervisors for alleged conflict of interest violations. The board voted in 2002 to grant massive retirement benefits to county employees that the supervisors also benefited from. The investigation has produced a few headlines and a warning to Aguirre from the attorney general, but little else.
Again in April 2005, Aguirre announced a “comprehensive legal review” of the city’s relationship with The Corky McMillin Cos. – the developer of the former Naval Training Center. In July 2005, Aguirre announced that he was investigating whether former Mayor Murphy promised to ignore the suggestions of the Pension Reform Committee in exchange for the endorsement of firefighters union President Ron Saathoff.
A pattern has formed. Aguirre jumps on a news bit or a hot topic and summons an investigation. Then the next day comes with a new topic, and the city attorney jumps on to the next probe. But nearly a year-and-a-half into his first term in office, we await the findings of all of these public probes. Meanwhile, the community struggles to digest his declarations one by one.
It’s fair, at this time of budget negotiations, to ask how the city attorney’s staff has performed and whether it deserves the extra millions the mayor hopes to direct his way. We still look forward to the first unique discovery of Aguirre’s much hailed public integrity unit. So far, we see a lot of dangerous accusations and few results.
Much good can come from an active investigator like Aguirre within City Hall. And we still hold out hope that the above mentioned investigations will be concluded in due time with either an absolution of the parties involved or with prosecutions. But we are unsure of the value of announcing investigations before even beginning them.
Other prosecutors, such as the U.S. attorney across town, put the press conferences on hold until her team confirms its suspicions or allegations with thorough investigations and, accordingly, criminal charges.
The public proclamation of Aguirre’s investigations has two unfortunate consequences: The first is that a presumed innocent subject of the city attorney’s investigators may have his or her reputation unduly tarnished. Being “under investigation” doesn’t really mean anything legally but it certainly does to your family, friends and enemies, if you have them. If the investigations turn up nothing, then we would hope that Aguirre would then too call a press conference to clear the names of those he has investigated.
The second is that without providing conclusions to all these investigations – and conclusions with impressive consequences – Aguirre risks degrading the power of his position. After all, how soon will it be before his announcement of yet another investigation becomes simply unremarkable?
We support his effort to hold the city accountable, but he shouldn’t announce another investigation until he can provide closure on some of the many he long ago started.
Editor’s note: The original version of this editorial read that the city attorney had “just Tuesday” announced the creation of the Lease and Contract Task Force. Actually, the task force had been created in July. We regret the error.