Monday, May 19, 2008 | Assessment of Michael Jules Aguirre’s legal career takes place, for the most part, at either end of a spectrum that spans from utter contempt to rapturous approval.

To his supporters, Aguirre’s work as a lawyer is defined by academic brilliance, tenacity in the face of steep odds and a capacity for working so hard that he makes most other lawyers look like couch potatoes. But to his opponents, Aguirre is an intellectual lightweight who bases his theories on the conspiracies in his head rather than the law written in books — a serial filer of frivolous lawsuits who doesn’t know when to give up or when to admit that he’s simply wrong.

For three decades prior to his election in 2004, Aguirre again and again sought out roles with a public service element to them.

As a rookie U.S. attorney in San Diego, his investigation into a pension scam grew into the most high-profile case the office had handled in years. As a private civil litigator, he made millions of dollars for himself and his clients, always representing investors who felt they had been duped in some way. And Aguirre’s gadfly lawsuits against local governments over the last two decades have helped shape the local political map, once literally, in the early 1990s, when the City Council was ordered to redraw council district boundaries as a result of a lawsuit Aguirre fought.

Along the way, Aguirre has gained a reputation for being ruthless but not greedy, bombastic but never boring. The highs and lows of his first four years in office have been well-documented. But, in his legal career before public office, he’s remembered for representing his client with an intensity that reflects his own complex legal philosophy — a philosophy he said is rooted in the liberal ethos of the civil rights era.

“He’s a zealot,” said Don McGrath, a long-time San Diego lawyer and Aguirre’s right-hand-man at the City Attorney’s Office. “You know he doesn’t have a car? Everyone has a car. He was always a crusader.”

The Rookie Investigator

Aguirre found his first big case out of pure, dumb luck.

Returning to the U.S. Attorney’s Office one day, barely half a year into his career as a deputy U.S. attorney, he met a group of union representatives coming down the stairs. The men told him they were being ripped off by the trustees of their pension plan, but that they had been turned away by the U.S. attorneys, who said they weren’t interested in the case.

Aguirre was interested. He sat with the men and heard them out. After a couple of hours, he decided the case was worth investigating, despite the fact that it fell outside the normal prosecutorial focus of the office, which primarily handled immigration and drug cases and rarely conducted its own investigations.

The investigation focused on an area of law that would eventually become synonymous with Aguirre’s investigations: Pensions.

A group of pension trustees had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from a union pension fund by developing a host of tricks to ensure that they acquired vastly more pension credits than they were legally entitled. The scheme was so successful at first that one trustee had retired at the age of 34 on a healthy pension.

In April 1976, the San Diego U.S Attorneys Office indicted 17 pension trustees for bilking their labor trust fund of more than $600,000. It was a landmark case for Aguirre’s career and a precedent-setting investigation.

“It was the biggest case at that office for years before and years after,” said Donald Shanahan, who now works for Aguirre at the City Attorney’s Office and who worked alongside him at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Despite the success of the case, however, or perhaps because of it, Aguirre had started to bend noses out of shape. His unshakeable confidence and bombastic manner irked older, more experienced attorneys at the office, who took umbrage at the young upstart who seemed so eager to shake things up.

“He was a young Turk, just starting to practice the law, and he was cocky,” Shanahan said. “He would roll up his sleeves and loosen his tie — do the whole Bobby Kennedy thing — and some people took him to task for that.”

Chuck Dick, now a managing partner at the law firm of Baker & McKenzie in San Diego, joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office just after Aguirre left. He said not everyone at the department was impressed with Aguirre’s work.

“He was the butt of jokes at the U.S. Attorney’s Office when I got there. People viewed him with a snicker because he wasn’t viewed as the kind of guy who did the hard work a lawyer had to do,” Dick said.

Dick said Aguirre was a “macro guy,” preferring to view complex cases from 10,000 feet rather than dealing with the nitty-gritty mundane details of a case. As such, he said, Aguirre wasn’t considered a “lawyer’s lawyer,”

But while Aguirre was ruffling feathers with his style, retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Harry McCue, who presided over many of Aguirre’s first appearances in court, said the young attorney’s courtroom manner was faultless.

“I was impressed with his performance,” McCue said. “Mike Aguirre used the law as a guide. He read the law and he followed it strictly.”

And Judge Thomas Coffin was a lead prosecutor at the San Diego U.S. Attorney’s Office at the time and worked on the case with Aguirre, said the young lawyer showed remarkable foresight for taking on the case.

“I will give Mike all the credit in the world for having pursued that case when it was brought to his attention,” Coffin said. “It probably would never have been pursued by someone lacking his enthusiasm.”

Investigating Organized CrimeThe pension case gave Aguirre a taste for criminal investigation.

Before the men he had helped indict went on trial but after some had already pleaded guilty, Aguirre heard about a federal organized crime committee being set up by the U.S. Senate. The committee was to be run by La Verne Duffy, a veteran investigator who had once worked with Robert F. Kennedy, one of Aguirre’s idols.

Aguirre flew to Washington and camped out at Duffy’s office. He got the job.

For two years, Aguirre investigated some of the country’s most notorious public figures including Frank Fitzsimmons, who had taken over from Jimmy Hoffa as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters when Hoffa was thrown in jail.

The investigation took him into the middle of a power struggle that was raging within the union between Hoffa’s supporters and the Fitzsimmons family.

“Most of the guys were armed and they were blowing up each others’ cars and that sort of thing,” Aguirre said.

But the Senate investigation wound down in 1977 and Aguirre concluded that the Senate wasn’t as interested as he had thought in seriously investigating organized crime. He decided to return to San Diego where his older brother, Gary, had made a name for himself as a highly successful civil litigator.

Private Practice, Public Causes

Aguirre said he viewed private civil litigation as a new challenge. He saw private practice as a much more competitive field of the law than public prosecution where, he said, the courts are usually on your side and the odds are usually in your favor.

Characteristically, the field of law Aguirre became interested in and began to practice — securities litigation — had an element of public service to it. Aguirre sought out class-action suits he could file on behalf of investors who believed they had been ripped off by large investing firms and banks.

“He manifested this inherent need to protect the public interest at a very early stage in his private practice career and that continued throughout his career,” McCue said.

But this time, his activism came with hefty payouts.

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, he won a host of million-dollar cases and settled several class-action suits that netted him millions of dollars in attorney’s fees.

McGrath, who was then a civil defense attorney at Baker & McKenzie in San Diego, went head-to-head with Aguirre on a number of those lawsuits. He said Aguirre was so highly strung and tenacious when he was bringing a case that he managed to get ahead by simply outworking, outthinking and outmaneuvering his opponents.

“Once he got a hold of you, man it was like a dog grabbing your coat, you just couldn’t get rid of him,” McGrath said. “The secret was to just settle with him and get him out of there before he just drove you totally insane with work. He just outworked you. He’d just stay up all night.”

Dick, who also fought cases against Aguirre at the time doesn’t disagree that Aguirre was extremely tenacious. But he and other attorneys who defended suits brought by Aguirre questioned both the tactics the young lawyer used and his motivations.

Dick said Aguirre would use these tactics to drive defendants to settle for reasonably low figures in order to just get rid of him. He said Aguirre was so obsessive about the cases he brought that nothing could convince him to drop them, and he would continue to hound until defendants gave in. Rather than finding a cause of action first, and building his case around that cause, Dick said, Aguirre preferred to decide his clients had been wronged first before finding out how.

“Mike has, as his principal tool in advocacy, bombast,” Dick said. “Rather than going for a carefully reasoned, logical and persuasive argument in support of his legal position, Mike Aguirre first raises his voice, accuses people of high crimes and misdemeanors and waves his arms.”

Mitchell Lathrop, an attorney with Duane Morris LLP in San Diego, who defended several cases against Aguirre, said Aguirre’s work was often misguided by his lack of judgment. Some of Aguirre’s cases were legitimate, Lathrop said, but others were colored by his tendency to always believe his clients had been wronged, no matter what the evidence.

“Mike sees the worst in everything that he touches,” Lathrop said.

But Pat Shea, a San Diego attorney and an ardent Aguirre supporter, put criticism of Aguirre down to sour grapes. He said Aguirre rocked the boat because he was a young and talented lawyer who wanted to bring cases against older, more established attorneys, and did so with considerable success.

“Because he is very smart, works very hard and is very accomplished, he likes playing at that level,” Shea said. “Mike is not a slacker, and when he practices law, he likes playing with the big guys and he doesn’t mind standing in the ring and throwing punches with people who haven’t played with lawyers in that smaller group on a regular basis. And the fact that he’s in there playing at all has an additional element of irritation to it.”

Financially Stable, Rocking the Political Boat

For the first time in his life, Aguirre didn’t have to worry about money. He bought his first house, which he still lives in today, and returned to his activist roots, using the profits from his private practice to pursue runs at political office and to bring lawsuits against local governments.

In the early 1970s at Arizona State University and at law school at Boalt Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, Aguirre had championed various causes as a student activist.

In Arizona, he helped raise student recruitment among Native Americans. At Berkeley, he organized boycotts in support of labor leader César Chávez and, in 1973, he even met Chávez at one such boycott.

Aguirre said the sense of purpose that engulfed American universities during the years of the Vietnam War his fertilized his desire to serve the public good.

“It’s hard to understand now, but back then, students were much more intensely involved in the political system and the whole debate about where the country was going,” Aguirre said. “You had these heroic leaders like Martin Luther King, (Jr.) and Robert Kennedy — that was something; that really shaped my original consciousness.”

In 1988, Aguirre brought a lawsuit claiming the San Diego City Council districts unfairly watered down the voting power of the city’s black and Latino populations.

The case led to a judgment that ordered the City Council in the early 1990s to redraw the district borders and mandated the council to create an independent panel to oversee the city’s future redistricting efforts.

In 1993, Aguirre heard that Chávez had died in his sleep after testifying on the second day of a trial being brought against the United Farm Workers.

The suit was a claim for damages resulting from the union’s boycott of a large lettuce growing company. Knowing the case was vital to the UFW’s survival, Aguirre flew to Yuma, Ariz., where the trial was being held, and got the union’s permission to take over as their attorney on the case.

With thousands of workers and their families camped out on the lawns outside the courthouse, Aguirre lost an emotional court battle, in which he was chided for clashing repeatedly with the judge, who Aguirre accused of making rulings that were biased against the UFW.

But Aguirre later won the case on appeal, convincing an appeals court in Phoenix that the Yuma judge had given the jury instructions that were biased against the UFW. Aguirre sees the victory as one of his finest hours and a vindication of the death of Chávez, another of his heroes.

“The ethos of the whole thing was saving something that César had won and that the farmworkers couldn’t lose,” he said.

Back in San Diego, Aguirre fought another high-profile public service case against the proposed renovation of the Chargers football team’s stadium in Mission Valley. Aguirre argued that the deal would prove disastrous for the city if allowed to proceed.

But the case was dismissed by a Superior Court judge and the Chargers got their stadium renovation, along with a deal that included a controversial ticket guarantee and an option for the team to leave the city if it faced financial hardship. Those two provisions would end up costing the city more than $30 million and put the city in a weak bargaining position with the Chargers in the years to come.

“Aguirre doesn’t get credit for getting that one right,” Shea said. “His efforts just get put in the obstructionist, ‘bad person’ box.”

To continue funding his public advocacy lawsuits and to pay for a failed run for Congress in 1982 and failed runs for City Council in 1987 and 1993, Aguirre kept his private practice running.

In 1998, he won a large class-action lawsuit against an investment firm that resulted in a payout of $25 million to his clients. He immediately rolled his winnings from that case into an even bigger securities fraud suit against PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the world’s largest accountancy firms and First Pension, an Orange County pension administration firm.

He said the case nearly bankrupted him, but in July 2000 PricewaterhouseCoopers settled with Aguirre and two other lawyers for a confidential amount. Aguirre says it was the biggest payday of his career and it was the last non-public lawsuit he handled.

But before winning election in 2004, Aguirre fought one more battle with local government. In 2001, Aguirre sued four of the five members of the county Board of Supervisors over the boundaries of the county districts, which had just been redrawn.

This time, instead of arguing that the districts unfairly underrepresented minorities as he had 10 years earlier in the city redistricting case, Aguirre took a new tack, claiming four of the five county supervisors had met in secret to gerrymander the districts in their favor, thus violating California open meeting laws.

County Counsel John Sansone, who defended the county in the lawsuit, said the suit was a classic example of frivolous litigation.

“Mr. Aguirre would make allegations regardless of whether or not he felt he had the facts to support them or he felt he didn’t have the facts to support them, and if he did have the facts to support them, in many discussions with us, he would simply misrepresent the facts,” Sansone said.

Aguirre lost the case. He also lost an appeal. In a footnote of the appeals court’s ruling, the judge noted that Aguirre’s brief contained a number of misrepresentations of the record.

But, as with every public interest case he has brought in his long career, Aguirre maintains that his theories were sound. He continues to unapologetically claim that the County’s district borders were drawn up via a conspiracy concocted by Supervisors Bill Horn, Dianne Jacob, Greg Cox and Ron Roberts, and says one needs only to look at the racial, socio-economic and political makeup of the Board of Supervisors to see that something must be wrong with the way the districts are drawn up.

The county redistricting lawsuit, the last major public interest battle Aguirre fought before he became San Diego’s city attorney almost four years ago, represents the incumbent city attorney’s jurisprudential persona at its very core.

If something looks suspicious to Aguirre, and has the requisite element of public injustice, then, according to his thinking, that injustice must have some cause — somebody must be to blame.

That’s a concept that Aguirre still defends vehemently after more than 30 years, but it is also one that his opponents will no doubt continue to cite every time he fails to convince a judge, jury or electorate that he’s in the right.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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