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Thursday, Dec. 21, 2006 | Just less than a year ago, U.S. Attorney Carol Lam dropped the biggest of shoes yet to fall in the city of San Diego’s ongoing legal and financial crisis.
She secured criminal indictments of five former city pension officials on Jan. 6, 2006.
I know, I can’t believe it’s been a year.
By all accounts, Lam is an impressive and skilled advocate for the public as the region’s top prosecutor. But as this pension case wobbles through the drudgery of criminal prosecutions – pretrial motions and hearings – one question is still left: Is that really all she was going to do with the pension case?
If so, it would be nice for her to communicate that in some way to the people who might be wondering if they too might see their photos emblazoned on the front pages of news sites around the region as the latest in the line of alleged pension perps. It would be nice, in fact, to finally lift the cloud that Lam first put over City Hall when she first let it be known that she would investigate and prosecute San Diego’s corruption.
It would be nice to move on.
As far as we know, Lam’s formal investigation into the potential criminal acts involving the city’s pension system began nearly three years ago. It could have been sooner. Lam had been investigating City Hall for a long time about other issues. But her pension investigation was definitely moving forward by February 2004. For months, occasionally in the pews of City Council chambers or sitting at the tables in the board room of the city’s retirement system, two FBI agents with stone cold faces would sit and gaze at officials as they conducted routine public meetings.
Then came the indictments. And while they were a big deal, a lot of us were left wondering, simply, where the beef was.
Yes, the five people Lam indicted were accused of doing bad things. They had allegedly found a way to give the president of the city’s firefighters union an extraordinary personal pension benefit. They allegedly did it without telling others who needed to know. And Lam accused these five people of doing all of that to persuade the union president to go along with the scheme that allowed the city to avoid an ugly bill from its pension system. It was the kind of bill that, if passed along to taxpayers, might have cost the mayor and city manager and others their careers.
It eventually did, anyway, but that’s beside the point.
Lam said that five people were involved in this: firefighter union President Ron Saathoff, former Human Resources Director Cathy Lexin, former Assistant Auditor Terri Webster, former pension attorney Lori Chapin and the former administrator of the retirement system, Larry Grissom.
Lexin and Webster had bosses, of course – bosses who knew what they were doing.
Just last week, Judge Jeffrey Barton, discussing another pension lawsuit, came to a conclusion many, many others made long ago. He talked about the city’s effort to boost the benefits of employees in order to convince them and their representatives to support a plan that would prevent the city from having to pay for them.
“The plan at each step was authorized by the City through its highest elected and management personnel,” Barton wrote.
It’s pretty clear to most everyone that if Lexin and Webster are guilty of anything, so were their bosses: various members of the City Manager’s Office at the time and the city auditor.
Again, it’s been a year. If Carol Lam thinks the kind of fraud, conspiracy and malfeasance that she described in her indictment last year really did take place, where’s the medicine for the higher ups? Are we really to believe it was only Lexin and Webster who pushed this deal? That they acted without the blessing if not encouragement of their bosses?
I thought this last year but waited. I know prosecutions and investigations take time. Lots of it.
But let’s see it. It’s been a year. A number of people still speculate that sitting members of the City Council, former Mayor Dick Murphy or former City Attorney Casey Gwinn, who now works for the DA, will face criminal charges. Not a council meeting goes by, in fact, without a gadfly or two reminding everyone of this possibility. This isn’t sustainable. Lam owes the city and those she might accuse some kind of clarity.
There are those in the city who still to this day believe that the pension mess is nothing but a figment of our imagination.
There are others who understand that the city has a massive financial problem but have struggled, like me, to determine whether it was caused by an arrogant defiance of reality or a criminal desire for personal enrichment worthy of prosecution and sentencing.
It was clearly wrong that one man could find a way to increase his own expected personal pension from the city by $25,000. The idea that presidents of the city’s unions deserve larger pensions than the ones their members plan to receive is enraging.
Lam, last year, took a stand. She held that what happened in San Diego was distinct from the millions of legal backslapping deals that occur in government offices around the country – the kind of complex arrangements implemented by savvy bureaucrats who can manipulate laws and procedures with a startling adroitness.
If what happened was distinct and worthy of the kind of punishment only the criminal justice system can hand out, then Lam simply shouldn’t be done with her indictments. She should just be warming up.
But it’s been a year and we’ve heard nothing. In April, federal agents raided the office of the former president of the city’s pension board.
Still though, nothing.
What happened wasn’t just the result of the work of five people. It took, as many have described it, a culture at City Hall to accomplish what they did.
Five people aren’t capable of creating a culture for a city with thousands and thousands of workers.
If what happened was illegal, more people were involved.
If the evidence is too flimsy against them or if the U.S. attorney doesn’t think the laws apply the same to the former bosses at City Hall, then she has a duty to inform them that they can go back to living a normal life. They needn’t worry about her anymore unless something new comes up.
And she should explain to us all why these five people she indicted are the only ones being punished for what happened.