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Wednesday, May 21, 2008 | The state Attorney General’s Office concluded in a report released Tuesday that there was no basis to City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s claims last year that Mayor Jerry Sanders engaged in corruption in his handling of the controversial Sunroad office building in Kearny Mesa.
The report examines a series of accusations made by Aguirre in media reports, press conferences and in a letter published in The San Diego Union-Tribune.
It assesses each claim in turn, concluding every time that the mayor’s actions did not constitute political corruption in either a factual or legal sense.
The report does not discuss some of the key turning points and nuances of the Sunroad scandal, and in some instances it is inconsistent with on-the-record statements made by Sanders and his aides. And the report makes public new accusations against Aguirre and his second-in-command, Don McGrath, who, according to a mayoral spokesman, threatened Sanders with making the corruption allegations public if the mayor didn’t reverse a decision to cut the budget for Aguirre’s office.
Sanders said the report exonerates him; Aguirre says it’s a whitewash and a political favor designed to win Sanders votes at a crucial point in his reelection campaign.
“The message inherent in the attorney general’s report is that bullies eventually get their due,” Sanders said. “This whole episode is representative of what happens when someone makes reckless charges motivated by their own political agenda.”
Though Aguirre said he said he regrets ever using the word “corrupt,” he maintained that Sanders is complicit in several elements of the Sunroad scandal.
“I thought it then, I think it now. I think it was improper, I think it was special influence. I don’t care what the A.G.’s Office says about this, I totally disagree with what they’re saying,” Aguirre said.
The allegations were made at the height of the most serious political scandal of Sanders’ mayoral term, and represented the disintegration of an always fragile political partnership between Aguirre and Sanders.
The building in question, an office tower that violated Federal Aviation Administration height restrictions, was constructed by Sunroad Enterprises. Sunroad’s president, Aaron Feldman, helped raise thousands of dollars for Sanders’ election campaign.
Aguirre alleged Sanders had pulled strings to get the building through the city’s permitting process and to allow work to continue on the building despite concerns raised by city staffers. He also claimed Sanders later ordered city officials to lobby the FAA on Sunroad’s behalf to keep the building at its existing height and to find an alternative solution to the problem.
The attorney general’s report concluded that city officials had not lobbied on behalf of Sunroad, but had presented the FAA a plan proposed by the city that would meet the city’s best interests and, indeed, could eliminate the risk of costly litigation for the city.
“The proposal was intended to meet and satisfy the FAA’s concerns underlying the ‘hazard determination.’ The proposal was not designed to benefit Sunroad,” the report states.
In its discussion of these allegations, the Attorney General’s Office’s report missed out on some potentially crucial details about what Aguirre was alleging.
One of Aguirre’s claims was that Sanders, against the advice of his staff and against the best interest of the city, allowed Sunroad to continue working on their project despite the height issues. Months after the scandal broke, Sunroad was given approval to continue “weatherizing” the top of the building despite the fact that the structure clearly violated FAA height limits, Aguirre said, and that was evidence that Sanders was doing a favor for his contributor.
The attorney general’s report concluded firmly that the decision to allow the weatherization to take place was based on a “reasonable and good faith belief” by the mayoral staff members that the action was in the city’s best interests as it could protect the city from further liability.
“They were not doing a favor for Sunroad or Aaron Feldman,” the report states.
But in discussing the veracity of that allegation, the report makes no mention of a claim made by a former city chief building inspector that Sunroad executives went over his head to get permission from the city to continue working on the building and that he disagreed with the decision. Aguirre said that’s a key element of his suspicion of the mayor and something the Attorney General’s Office should have considered.
And there are discrepancies between the report and Sanders’ stated position on certain issues. For example, Sanders and his spokesman have said in various interviews that in a meeting on Dec. 19, 2006, Sanders and Feldman discussed whether Sunroad could be allowed to continue working on its project and would be allowed to “weatherize” the controversial top 20 feet of the building.
The report says the weatherization proposal was not discussed at that meeting.
The report passed over another detail pertaining to the city’s use of San Diego County Regional Airport Authority official Ted Sexton, who Aguirre claims lobbied FAA officials on Sunroad’s behalf.
Aguirre claimed Sexton was meeting with the FAA to push an alternative plan on Sunroad’s behalf that would solve the building’s height problem by changing the airport’s flight paths in bad weather to avoid the building.
The presentation Sexton made to the FAA on the city’s behalf proposing the alternative solution was heavily based on a report compiled for Sunroad Enterprises by an aviation consultant several months earlier.
But the attorney general’s report doesn’t mention the consultants’ work on the proposal Sexton eventually showed the FAA. Nor does it delve into the revelation last summer that Sexton asked for approval of his presentation from a top Sunroad executive prior to meeting with the FAA, something that Aguirre said is fundamental to his belief that Sexton was essentially working on behalf of Sunroad’s interests.
The report does, however, make some allegations of its own.
The report states that mayoral spokesman Fred Sainz told attorney general investigators that Executive Assistant City Attorney Don McGrath told him he would “go easy” on the mayor on Sunroad if the mayor agreed to drop a proposal to cut 17 city attorney jobs.
And the report states Sainz said McGrath told mayoral aide Kris Michell that Aguirre would publicly accuse the mayor of being corrupt in connection with Sunroad if the mayor did not concede on the plan to cut the city attorneys.
“Finally, in his statement to this office, Mayor Sanders stated that the city attorney telephoned the mayor and asked for the budget to preserve the 17 ‘supplemental’ positions. The mayor said, ‘No.’ The city attorney responded, ‘It’s not going to be pretty,’ and hung up,” the report states.
McGrath and Aguirre vehemently denied making the statements.
“Fred (Sainz) is an unmitigated liar,” McGrath said. “I don’t talk to Fred because I don’t trust him. This is the first time, today, that I’ve ever heard those comments.”
The report marks the first time the Mayor’s Office has made the claims about Aguirre or McGrath.
San Diego City Council President Scott Peters, himself a candidate for city attorney running against Aguirre, called Tuesday for District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis to investigate the allegations of extortion and political blackmail levied against Aguirre in the attorney general’s report.