The Morning Report
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Thursday, Oct. 11, 2007 | City Attorney Mike Aguirre found himself on the other end of a loaded accusation Wednesday after an editorial in a local newspaper opined that he violated the city charter by accepting campaign contributions from six of his employees.
With the ink on The San Diego Union-Tribune editorial barely dry, the local Republican Party officials said they would seek to remove Aguirre, a Democrat, from office.
But local campaign law experts doubted the accusations lodged by the newspaper would stick. And, according to campaign filings, one of the Republican Party’s own accepted contributions from his employees as well.
Experts questioned whether the section cited by the newspaper applied to campaign activity and noted that it was in conflict with the city’s specific election laws, including a candidate guide released by the city’s Ethics Commission.
“I question the U-T‘s interpretation of this law. The law in my opinion doesn’t say that candidates can’t accept contributions from their subordinates,” said Jim Sutton, a San Francisco elections attorney whose past clients include Mayor Jerry Sanders, the conservative Lincoln Club and numerous Republican lobbyists.
The law in question, Section 218 of the city charter, appears to be a rather obscure one. Several campaign veterans interviewed for this story said they’d never heard of it.
The section states that: “No officer or employee shall solicit or accept any donation or gratuity in money, or other thing of value, either directly or indirectly, from any subordinate or employee, or from any one under his charge, or from any candidate or applicant for any position as employee or subordinate in any Department of the City.”
The city’s municipal code, which includes the election laws enforced by the Ethics Commission, forbids elected officials from soliciting contributions from employees, unless the solicitation part of a larger appeal made to “a significant segment of the public,” according to the Ethics Commission. But it doesn’t forbid employees from giving to candidates.
Pamela Lawton Wilson, an attorney with Wertz McDade Wallace Moot & Brower, said it’s impossible to know the charter section’s intent unless it’s been construed in a memo or court case. But she said there’s too much ambiguity between the charter and election laws to make a strong case against an elected official.
“I think you’d have a pretty tough road to hoe to prosecute someone on this,” Wilson said.
Indeed, campaign finance records show that Council members Jim Madaffer, Tony Young and Donna Frye all received campaign contributions from their employees as well. Madaffer is a Republican; Young and Frye are Democrats.
That it was Aguirre left fighting off a questionable accusation was an irony lost on few. The city attorney has earned a reputation for grabbing tidbits of information and rushing to accuse his adversaries.
The local Republican Party, which has stepped up its criticism of Aguirre as of late, was quick to react to the newspaper’s editorial, which suggested that Aguirre could be removed from office for his alleged transgressions.
Just before 1 p.m., the party released a press release with the headline: “Complaint To Be Filed Today to Remove City Attorney Michael Aguirre from Office.”
Later in the day, party officials filed an ethics complaint with the city, which itself couldn’t get Aguirre expelled. They said a favorable finding from the Ethics Commission, though, could be used in an eventual push to get Aguirre removed.
The petition filed by the party alleges violations of charter Section 218, although the Ethics Commission can’t investigate violations of the charter.
The petition also notes that five of the six employees who gave to Aguirre’s campaign “were reported to have been given hefty salary increases just days after contributing to Aguirre’s political campaign fund.”
Theresa McAteer, the party’s special counsel, said she wanted to focus not necessarily on the fact that Aguirre accepted the contributions, but whether he violated ethics laws that forbid public officials from soliciting donations directly from employees. She said she didn’t have any evidence that he had.
“I think we’ve got more to go on than Mr. Aguirre has in most of his accusations,” she said.
They lashed at Aguirre for “violating the same ethics laws he purports to uphold” and assured that the complaint was not merely a partisan attack on the Democratic city attorney.
But they declined to answer whether they would similarly seek the ouster of Madaffer, a Republican who received a total of $375 from two of his staff members during his 2004 campaign for reelection. “We have no facts reported to us as we do with Mr. Aguirre,” McAteer said.
For his part, Aguirre dismissed the criticism, saying the charter section that the Union-Tribune and Republican Party were pressing him on was trumped by 1976 state legislation that allowed employees of elected officials to give to their bosses. The city attorney said the charter passage was one of the many areas of the city’s constitutional bylaws that were obsolete.
The five Aguirre aides who were called out in the editorial denied that the city attorney requested they give to his campaign.
“We were not solicited by anybody,” Executive Assistant City Attorney Don McGrath said. “I’m a Republican, I worked for Barry Goldwater, and I don’t believe in anything that they said.”
McGrath boisterously said he was considering suing editorial page editor Bob Kittle in response to the editorial.
The aides said they gave to Aguirre’s campaign because they supported him politically, and not because they were hoping for raises.
“I, like everyone else, have First Amendment rights,” Assistant Karen Heumann said.