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Thursday, Nov. 29, 2007 | On Oct. 10 The San Diego Union-Tribune dropped what it thought was a weapon of political destruction on San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre.

The paper came out with a an editorial that declared outright that Aguirre had violated the law and suggested he should be removed from office.

In the shadow of this mammoth accusation was the interesting revelation that members of the city attorney’s staff had given him campaign donations. This point produced an equally interesting follow-up in our pages.

But the U-T editorial page wasn’t content to merely reveal the questionable fundraising and just opine on that. The paper thought it had found something more profound than just stinky. It uncovered an obscure provision of the city charter that declared that city officials should not accept anything of value from the city employees who work for them. It was a provision introduced more than 70 years ago ostensibly to keep people from giving the mayor a farm animal — or a Model A — in order to get a job on his staff.

The U-T declared that Aguirre had violated the law and provided a roadmap for throwing him from office because of it.

The piece was a shocker. The collective jaw of political insiders dropped as everyone tried to figure out what it meant. Was this Aguirre’s end?

The thought got the local lodge of the Republican Party so excited it scurried to hold a press conference calling for Aguirre’s removal from office. Party leaders didn’t know how to respond when it was revealed that other elected officials — including a prominent member of their own party — had accepted contributions from staff members. But it didn’t matter.

The voiceofsandiego.org news team took a look at it and found attorneys — who are not sympathetic in any way to Aguirre — who said the U-T‘s claim that he had violated the law was bogus.

As the holes in the accusation began to appear, the editor of the U-T’s editorial page, Bob Kittle, went out on the circuit to defend his declaration. Like a prosecutor, he was sure of his position and was willing to say someone had pointedly broken the law.

The effort produced this funny exchange between Kittle and Assistant City Don McGrath:

McGrath said he was penning a letter to Kittle informing him of the steps he would have to take in order to avoid being sued for damages.

“I want a newspaper,” McGrath said.

Kittle, in an interview, said he had not heard from McGrath and also offered up advice for Aguirre’s top legal lieutenant.

“I would say this to Mr. McGrath: In the state of California, truth is an absolute defense against libel,” Kittle said.

Kittle defended the editorial, which was criticized by campaign finance attorneys yesterday, saying the charter section being downplayed by the lawyers is “law of the land” and that other legislation regarding elections fail to trump it.

The editorial created such an uproar that the U-T‘s news staff had to follow-up on it the next day. It even interviewed Kittle.

Here’s what the newspaper reported:

Robert Kittle, editor of the Union-Tribune‘s editorial page, said: “The charter is very clear in black and white. It prohibits city officials from accepting contributions of any kind from their subordinates. The city attorney has patently violated this provision.”

Kittle went on the radio two days after the editorial ran to further defend it:

… the city charter is quite clear. It says a city official may not accept any donation of any kind — nothing of value directly or indirectly. That charter was the people’s charter, adopted by the voters in 1931.

Mike Aguirre is very fond of quoting that charter because it’s the same charter that created an independently elected city attorney. But, in this case, he’s chosen to ignore the requirements of the charter and to take these illegal campaign contributions. In fact, of the six people who gave contributions to him, that he took contributions from illegally, five of them were given very fat pay raises within just a few days.

Two days after running the editorial, Kittle was convinced as ever that Aguirre did something illegal and should be thrown out of office for it.

The U-T‘s assertion, I noted then, was “the sort of unrepentant accusation for which Aguirre himself has earned notoriety.”

And this was my conclusion:

The U-T didn’t simply postulate that the law might have been violated. It claimed with certainty it had and laid out a path to justice.

And just like Aguirre has done countless times, the paper took a valid issue, a valid complaint and cheapened it, made it political theater, and potentially only hurt itself.

Eventually, the issue fell off the radar screen. Then the county started on fire.

But, three weeks after the editorial had run, something changed in the belly of the beast. The U-T bizarrely decided to run a retraction of sorts deep inside the local section.

I just learned about it Wednesday from a story in CityBeat. There was no radio appearance, no large headline on the website. Just an inconspicuous paragraph three weeks after the paper had run its editorial.

Let’s go through each part of it.

An. Oct. 10 editorial referenced a 1931 San Diego Charter provision that prohibits city employees from soliciting or accepting campaign donations from subordinates or other city employees.

Yes, that is correct.

The editorial noted that state law and the municipal code allow for the acceptance of unsolicited campaign contributions.

Ummm … not so sure about that. I’ve read the editorial 12 times. It doesn’t note “that state law and the municipal code allow for the acceptance of unsolicited campaign contributions.” It just doesn’t.

Corrections are hard to write, I know. But no matter how distasteful it is, you can’t pretend like your original piece said something that it just didn’t.

Pursuant to the California Government Code, state law supersedes the charter on this subject. The headline incorrectly stated that Aguirre violated the law on contributions from staff.

The headline said it; the entire body supported that conclusion.

The editorial also noted that Deputy City Attorneys Kathryn Burton, Don McGrath, Karen Heumann, John Serrano and Walter Chung contributed to City Attorney Aguirre’s campaign and all received pay increases shortly thereafter. As clarification, the editorial did not state that any of these individuals violated the law by making these contributions.

Let’s translate that last passage into American. We said these guys gave money to the city attorney’s campaign. We said they got raises shortly after. But we never said they did anything wrong. Just that it was unclear if they violated the law.

It’s a dense, wordy, dodgy way to say the paper was wrong — but only about a headline.

That’s something, at least. Let’s review what the original headline said:

Ethical breach: Aguirre violates law on contributions from staff

So all the correction said basically was that the paper screwed up the headline. Oh and also that the editorial noted something that it actually didn’t.

Let’s be clear: Aguirre has some serious problems and talking about them has earned me and others the wrath of his die-hard supporters.

But the U-T‘s reporters are trying to write the good and bad about Aguirre and they’re trying to get him to take them seriously. They, however, face a relentless barrage of criticism from Aguirre about their supposed agenda to take him down.

It’s tempting to write that off and simply read what these reporters have to say. But their editorial page does to them what Aguirre does to legitimate reformers in the city: he ruins their efforts by lodging baseless allegations about their targets. And when he’s proven wrong, he mumbles something and moves on.

That’s exactly what the U-T just did. Their anxiousness to nuke the city attorney and their inability to admit they were wrong reflects not only on the members of the editorial board, but on their entire paper.

As I said before, Aguirre and the U-T’s editorial board are like two peas in a pod. They could end up destroying each other. And would we really be worse off as a community if they did?

Please contact Scott Lewis (scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org) directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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