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Wednesday, March 21, 2007 | It’s only a matter of time before Mike Aguirre thinks you’re corrupt — if he doesn’t already.
There was a time when the city attorney’s brand of shake-’em-down, take-no-prisoners politics seemed refreshing. City Hall was under investigation by nearly everyone, and few allegations appeared implausible as the city’s finances sank deeper into the red and its political fibers unwound.
But his act is wearing thin. Recently, Aguirre again chose to wander down a wild path in which he has publicly impugned individuals or groups based on fragments of information. He deemed the mayor’s top development aide corrupt and called a press conference to demand a federal investigation — but offered scant evidence of what exactly constituted the corruption.
After two years of investigation into the Liberty Station development, he curiously came up with his first allegation of misdeeds on a Friday evening as the Union-Tribune prepared to go to press with a two-part series looking into the development. And last week he issued a terse statement tying the Little Italy Association to state and federal investigations.
These all seem like worthy alleys of investigation. But there are two problems. First, the allegations don’t appear to have been completely and thoroughly investigated yet. Second, like the boy who cried wolf too many times, it’s hard to tell when Aguirre has something legitimate anymore.
Unfortunately, this has become a troubling pattern for a city attorney who has very publicly announced more investigations and allegations than can be counted, yet actually followed through on a precious few.
We have both supported and opposed Aguirre in the past. We believe his pension case had to be filed given the depth of the city’s financial troubles and the evidence of impropriety. His case was based on sound legal theory, despite its current troubles in court. His sharp questioning of consultants and other public officials during public meetings brought a new level of conscience to council chambers. We appreciate his zeal for protecting the public good.
Aguirre often attracts criticism that he has “not won a case” since he took over. He has, indeed, lost some high-profile legal battles. But he did the city a service by crafting a successful settlement between San Diego and the Securities and Exchange Commission when other officials may have used negotiations to shield their own culpability. His management of that effort spared the city — and its taxpayers — punitive actions from the federal government.
Aguirre oversaw the successful defeat of the ominous and potentially devastating lawsuit filed by developer Roque de la Fuente and his legal maneuvering forced former investment consultants to the city’s pension fund to pay millions after alleged wrongful acts. And, despite opponents’ cries to the contrary, his office needed a housecleaning following the disastrous tenure of the previous City Attorney Casey Gwinn.
But we have also criticized the city attorney for using words such as “investigation” and “corruption” not as ultimate tools of justice, but rather as blunt political weapons of intimidation. He has launched countless investigations into a wide range of municipal business. They include numerous probes into pension conflicts of elected officials; his own office; Councilman Jim Madaffer; Naval Training Center; the relationship between former Mayor Dick Murphy and union head Ron Saathoff; the county Board of Supervisors; and more.
However, more than two years into his first term, he has produced next to nothing in the way of charges or closure, instead coming up with only sound bites that resonate with a public that long ago lost its faith in city government.
Ten months ago we asked the city attorney to wrap up a long list of announced investigations. Today, even more probes have been announced, and we are still waiting for the conclusion of even one.
As we’ve said in the past, this sort of shoot-first, ask-questions-later investigating both sullies the reputations of those in the crosshairs and degrades the power that an effective investigator in Aguirre’s position could have.
City Hall still needs Mike Aguirre. It needs his attitude, his intelligence and his oversight. What it doesn’t need is the reckless manner in which he sometimes chooses to use these skills.
In order to be an effective politician and a worthwhile leader, Aguirre must understand that people can disagree with him and still be honest. Today, disagree with the city attorney, and it’s not that you’re wrong, or that you’ve simply come to a different conclusion than him. It’s that you’re corrupt.
The people of San Diego need Mike Aguirre to be their attorney. They don’t need him to serve as their self-appointed moral compass.
Part of Aguirre’s appeal has been the combat he’s waged against an unfortunate legacy of San Diego leaders past. But, if he’s not more careful with his position of power, he will be left battling his own unfortunate legacy.