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Friday, Aug. 24, 2007 | To help capture a tight victory at the ballot box in 2004, Mike Aguirre spent more than a half-million dollars of his own money. With the help of supporters, he’s finding a way to get paid back.
Nearly three years after the election, Aguirre has raised $33,374 from donors who are helping the city attorney’s campaign committee reimburse its last lingering creditor: himself.
While part of that sum has gone unspent or to pay the committee’s operating expenses, $19,500 has been returned to Aguirre’s own pocket.
The arrangement allows Aguirre to raise money from benefactors, some of whom have business in front of the legal department he oversees, for the sole purpose of boosting his own personal finances.
After four prior elections in which he loaned his campaigns six-figure amounts only to forgive the debts upon his defeats, Aguirre said he is taking advantage of a law that allows him to replenish some of the personal assets he has sacrificed to become an elected official. However, he recognizes “it puts the City Attorney’s Office in a difficult spot.”
“It’s a difficult situation, but I don’t think there’s anyone who’s seen the way I operate who thinks they can buy the office,” Aguirre said. “This is just the reality of the situation.”
Under campaign laws, candidate committees such as the one that guided Aguirre past Leslie Devaney in the 2004 election used to be able to remain active for as long as it took to pay back the loan a candidate made to the committee. For Aguirre, a former plaintiff’s attorney, it’s been nearly three years since he boosted his cause with $565,000 in loans.
The rules have since been changed so that a candidate only has six months after an election to continue fundraising to pay off campaign debt. Officials believed the appearance of corruption would be diminished by scaling back the fundraising activities that can take place during an officeholder’s tenure. However, Aguirre was grandfathered in.
As a result, 190 individuals have given money to the committee long after it aired radio advertisements and printed mailers urging voters to support Aguirre at the ballot box.
Many of the contributions hail from attorneys from firms around San Diego.
Among those lawyers: the representative for activists that have challenged the city of San Diego in environmental lawsuits. Another works for a large law firm that racks up millions of dollars in fees to perform legal work Aguirre’s office farms out. Others are deputy city attorneys who report to Aguirre.
Another benefactor was the lead spokesman for a community planning group that sought help from Aguirre’s office in a controversy over the organization’s livelihood this year.
Although the fundraising is legal, ethicists argue the arrangement creates an apparent conflict of interest for the elected official.
“It’s going to his own pocket from people who want something from the city attorney,” said Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies and author of California’s campaign finance law.
Clients for attorney Cory Briggs have recently challenged the city’s environmental review of condo conversions, the Navy Broadway Complex and the city’s blueprint for future development. Although they go opposed by the City Council and Mayor Jerry Sanders, their causes have roundly won the support of Aguirre.
As city attorney, Aguirre has largely sided with Briggs over the decisions made by Sanders’ development staff and the City Council. In November 2005, Aguirre authored a legal opinion that said the city must halt approving the transformation of apartments into for-sale homes until it studies how the wave of condo conversion impacted the surrounding community.
The advice boosted the assertions of Briggs’ clients, known as Citizens for Responsible Equitable Environmental Development. The City Council tentatively agreed to settle the case with Briggs and pay him $75,000 in attorney fees on March 27 — one day after Briggs contributed $300 to Aguirre’s committee.
Briggs said he didn’t know that the money he contributed this spring was being funneled back to Aguirre to pay off his previous campaign loan. Instead, he said he thought his check was going to Aguirre’s 2008 re-election campaign, which lawfully couldn’t begin raising money until June.
Nonetheless, Briggs said he would have given anyway. “Had I known he was trying to repay the money, I wouldn’t have cared,” Briggs said. “I think he’s the right person for the job right now.”
Aguirre brushed off the timing of the donation. He said he has a volunteer who works outside of the City Attorney’s Office to handle his fundraising and that he does not ask for money himself.
Further, he said he fundamentally agrees with Briggs’ clients that the environmental decisions made by the city’s development services staff are faulty.
“He’s aligned with me ideologically, so I don’t think there ever is a conflict there,” Aguirre said. “Cory Briggs is a progressive, I’m a progressive.”
Briggs said he didn’t think he had sway above anyone else. “I wish I was getting my $300 out of Mike Aguirre,” he said, lamenting that the city attorney rarely returns his phone calls or e-mails.
Another donor with matters before Aguirre is Kristine Wilkes, an attorney at Latham & Watkins. Wilkes has worked on issues for the City Attorney’s Office related to the city’s pension fund and the long-running courtroom dispute with developer Roque de la Fuente. Her firm has also assisted the city in its litigation against Sunroad Enterprises, the developer of a Kearny Mesa office building that violates federal aviation rules.
Wilkes gave Aguirre’s campaign $250 in April, months before Latham & Watkins’ contracts came up for a $4 million in extensions. She did not return calls seeking comment.
Also in April, Aguirre came to the aide of La Jolla Community Planning Association when Jim Waring, the former land-use chief to Sanders, tried to decertify the group’s election results by claiming its bylaws were invalid. Aguirre issued a legal opinion that opposed Waring’s decision. The move followed the March 26 donation by Rob Whittemore, a trustee of the planning association who gave $250. Whittemore did not return calls seeking comment.
Aguirre claimed the $250 or $300 provided to him while he was in office was insignificant. But he refuses to close his 2004 campaign and forgive the $545,000 in debt that remains outstanding.
“I worked very hard for that, and I’ve had to alter my lifestyle to run for public office, but I’m going to work to recover what I can,” Aguirre said.
The city attorney said he had to cash out his shares of the law firm he operated when he was elected, leaving behind millions in potential judgments and settlements pending at the time. Additionally, he had already spent millions of dollars running for Congress, district attorney and City Council twice before narrowly squeezing past Devaney in 2004.
Aguirre forgave his past campaign debts, but as a sitting officeholder, there is no need to give up on the current loan because individuals are always going to want to support a sitting elected official, Stern said.
“If the city attorney had lost, I can almost guarantee you they would not be helping him,” he said. “They don’t give to losers.”
Aguirre said he is now concentrating on raising money for his 2008 reelection bid instead of the 2004 loans. In June, the first month of fundraising for next year’s race, Aguirre raised $1,610 to extend his tenure. In the same month, he raised $2,750 to help plug his 2004 campaign’s deficit.
The city changed its rules in 2005 to allow candidates’ campaign committees six months to square away their debts in an attempt to cut down on the seemingly awkward situation of allowing an individual to give a political contribution that is almost directly funneled to an elected official’s pocketbook.
The new time limit seems “more reasonable,” city Ethics Commission Executive Director Stacey Fulhorst said.
“The commission was concerned about candidates and elected officials asking for contributions while doing the business of the city,” she said. “It can create the appearance of a contributor trying to curry favor with an elected official.”
Councilman Tony Young found himself ensnared by the law this spring, when the Ethics Commission fined him $10,000 for failing to pay the money he owed his vendors within the allotted time.
Stern suggested the city take a different route in trying to curb situations like Aguirre’s. Instead of instituting a time limit, many local governments have placed a ceiling on the amount a candidate can loan his or her campaign committee.
“I would let them lend some money to get their campaigns going, but $500,000 is much too much money,” he said. “It can really create abuses.”