Friday, Feb. 22, 2008 | San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre apparently knows mental instability when he sees it.
Just don’t ask him to diagnose himself.
In September of this year, Aguirre openly questioned the stability of Mayor Jerry Sanders. The San Diego Union-Tribune quoted the city attorney as saying, “The mayor seems to be having a schizophrenic political personality and I think that the people of San Diego are starting to grow concerned about the stability of the mayor and I am as well.”
On Monday, Aguirre repeatedly told a reporter for the Union-Tribune to seek counseling. The conversation was supposed to be private, but an NBC 7/39 video camera was rolling as Aguirre called reporter Alex Roth “pathological” for his stories chronicling the State Bar’s ongoing investigation of the city attorney. “Listen to me! You need to see a psychiatrist. I’m serious,” Aguirre tells him, according to a transcript of the conversation available on CityBeat’s website. “I’m telling you, you’re a young guy but there’s something wrong with you, like a screw loose.”
He can dish it out, but when NBC 7/39 reporter Gene Cubbison asked Thursday whether Aguirre had seen a psychiatrist, the city attorney thought the veteran local broadcaster had crossed a line.
In an interview set to be broadcast Saturday during NBC 7/39’s weekly broadcast of the show “Politically Speaking,” Aguirre accused Cubbison of “acting more like a candidate” than a journalist when asked to respond to suggestions the city attorney himself is unstable. (NBC 7/39 is voiceofsandiego.org‘s news partner.)
During a recording of the show, Cubbison asked why it was OK for Aguirre to question Roth’s sanity but not deal with those questions himself. (Update: Read a partial transcript of Cubbison’s interview with Aguirre here.)
“Those two things have no relevance. You have one situation where a young man is over and over and over again writing something that that is false and untrue and then you’re attacking me and I don’t know why,” Aguirre said.
Aguirre has had plenty of time to prepare answers to these questions. They’ve been floating around for years.
Rupert Linley, a veteran prosecutor whom Aguirre hired and then fired as head of the city attorney’s criminal division, told California Lawyer, “He started getting more and more frustrated — and more obnoxious. I really find him paranoid and bipolar. He gets to the point where he loses the ability to think rationally. He certainly caused damage to our friendship — well, he destroyed it, actually.” In a piece in San Diego Magazine, Tom Basinski, Aguirre’s former bodyguard, said “As smart as he is, Mike doesn’t grasp some things. His emotional responses resemble those of a child.” Former City Manager Lamont Ewell called Aguirre “completely unstable.”
And CityBeat’s David Rolland noted this week that the “irony” of Aguirre recommending counseling for Roth “is lost on no one who closely watches City Hall and knows that it’s Aguirre’s name that’s often used in the same sentence as ‘needs therapy.’” Tony Perry of the Los Angeles Times made a similar point during an April 6 discussion on the local public affairs TV show, Full Focus. “I think the issue you brought up about his stability is interesting,” Perry told host Michael Marcotte. “I’d be interested to know the music that runs through his head. Does anyone hear it?” The city attorney fired back with a four-page letter on his office stationery that chided Perry for not getting out of the office more often.
Perry has indeed gotten out of the office. He’s in Iraq right now. (Update: Read Aguirre’s letter to Perry here.)
Criticism from the press comes with the job for public officials in California’s second-biggest city, and Aguirre should be able to handle it better by now. What set him off with Roth was the reporter’s question about an ongoing investigation. It was as if that was crossing a line — an indication of Roth’s pathology, actually. Aguirre himself, though, has used pending investigations to question the ethics and integrity of others. When others do it to him, though, they are agents of a larger conspiracy against him.
Aguirre said Monday that he believes Roth is acting as an agent of Council President Scott Peters who announced his candidacy Monday for city attorney. “You need to step out of yourself,” Aguirre told Roth, “and examine yourself and find out why you’ve associated yourself with all the people from the county and with Scott Peters.” A moment later, Aguirre told Roth, “Alex, you don’t think I know how you get your information? Alex, I know who you talk with. I’m sure if you go back and look through your telephone messages, look at who you called …”
The subject of a person’s mental health is a tough one for journalists. The AP Stylebook, a Bible of sorts for working reporters, offers no guidance — a warning sign in itself. Depression is mentioned only as an economic phenomenon, not a mental one. So the journalist is left to struggle alone when an elected official exhibits paranoia or wild swings of emotion. And the journalist is going to ask questions.
KPBS’ Amita Sharma got the best response yet from Aguirre when she asked him about the rumors of his own mental instability. (Maria Velasquez, Aguirre’s spokeswoman, didn’t return a call seeking comment for this column.)
“You know,” Aguirre told Sharma, “I’ve been called every single name in the book. I’ve been called every name since I’ve been here. And it’s just part of the effort to try and discredit people. I think that you have to realize that whenever you get involved in bringing about change — political change or social change — whenever you get involved in that and there are entrenched powerful groups, they are going to resort to every effort to discredit people that they can.” But Aguirre said he and his office have the support of the citizens of San Diego because “the people get it.”
The Union-Tribune, it should be noted, is not afraid of exploring these issues with other elected officials. Rumors that 72-year-old San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender may be suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s were the subject of a front page article. Kolender wisely took the questions and denied the rumors.
When it comes to Aguirre, the newspaper published stories by Roth that make anonymous references to the city attorney as “Bipolar Bob” and paint the nudge-nudge picture of a man who is at the computer by 4 a.m., works out furiously twice in a day, and has a black-and-white Franklin Roosevelt documentary playing on a loop in his office. This doesn’t answer much.
To Aguirre, anyone who would raise deeper questions about him, myself included, must be part of the “powerful, entrenched groups” opposed to change. Either you’re with Aguirre or you’re against him. So I must be against him. He might waste more time and taxpayer resources learning that Alex Roth and I are friends, so I’ll save him the trouble. Oh, and I’m friends with folks at KPBS, too, and did some freelancing for the station.
And so the conspiracy circle gets wider and wider. Aguirre says the people understand him. But if they start asking questions, in his mind, they might need their heads examined.
Correction: In the original version of this piece, the name of Aguirre’s former bodyguard was misspelled. It has been corrected.
Seth Hettena, a San Diego-based freelance journalist and author, writes an occasional column “The Peanut Gallery” about local media and journalism. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with your complaints, thoughts or stories about San Diego reporters.