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Thursday, May 29, 2008 | For the last three and a half years, incumbent City Attorney Mike Aguirre hasn’t been shy about conducting investigations.

He’s investigated former city councilmen, a former mayor, the city’s pension system, the reports into the city’s pension system, a television station, the Sunroad building and the city’s response to various natural disasters, among other things.

Using the City Attorney’s Office to conduct these sorts of proactive investigations into high-profile topics is a new tactic that only began when Aguirre took office, said two former city attorney investigators who worked for Aguirre and his predecessor. Prior to Aguirre’s election, investigators at the office confined themselves to conducting case-by-case investigations to aid city lawyers in their defense of lawsuits against the city or conducted small-scale criminal investigations into misdemeanor violations, those investigators said.

Aguirre’s opponents like to criticize him for changing the investigative paradigm at the City Attorney’s Office. They say Aguirre has zealously overreached the investigative purview of his office and that his ad-hoc probes have distracted staff from the everyday, nitty-gritty work of city attorneys.

But at the same time none of the four lawyers jostling for Aguirre’s job question that the City Attorney’s Office has an important investigative role to play. Only Amy Lepine offered a tangible image of what such an investigation might look like with her at the helm of the City Attorney’s Office, but all agree that the proactive investigations first initiated by Aguirre have their time and place in San Diego’s city government.

Council President Scott Peters, the most vocal critic of Aguirre’s investigations in the pool of candidates, said Aguirre’s probes have been “witch hunts” that wasted staff time and produced little information of any use.

“His investigations are really press conferences,” Peters said. “They’re not really designed to find the facts or to look at the evidence; they’re designed to make political statements.”

But Peters said there are legitimate reasons for the city attorney to conduct proactive investigations into alleged wrongdoing. Many of the issues Aguirre has investigated haven’t fallen within the office’s purview, Peters said, but the City Attorney’s Office has plenty of opportunities to spot problems that need to be looked into further because it is involved in nearly all aspects of city government.

“We’re in a position to see where things are going wrong, so I think we should have our eyes open for that sort of thing, where things have gone really wrong,” Peters said.

Jan Goldsmith, who has occasionally praised Aguirre’s interim investigative reports in candidates’ forums, said the City Attorney’s Office should not only be open to investigations, but has an obligation to pursue investigations when problems have been brought to its attention.

But Goldsmith said he disagrees with the way Aguirre has conducted his probes over the last few years, and said the incumbent’s tactics have hurt his investigative efforts.

“You don’t go public,” Goldsmith said. “You don’t stand up at a press conference and say ‘We need to investigate this, we need to investigate that.’ You quietly conduct your investigation the way other law enforcement agencies do.”

Aguirre denies ever making accusations before conducting an investigation. He says there has been a lot of disinformation spread about how he has conducted himself in recent years, and that he has only ever held press conferences once an investigation has borne fruit.

But on several occasions in the last three and a half years, Aguirre has made accusations and promised an investigation to come. In 2005, he said he would launch an investigation into Councilman Jim Madaffer’s push to pad the pensions of former elected officials, a promise that never bore fruit. In 2007, he said he would investigate alleged corruption by Mayor Jerry Sanders’ land-use czar Jim Waring. No investigation has ever materialized.

The image of Aguirre accusing first and investigating later is one that all the incumbent’s opponents have been seeking to foster, along with the perception of Aguirre as a loose cannon who investigates issues that are simply outside of his purview.

City Councilman Brian Maienschein said Aguirre’s investigation of KPBS television station last year is a perfect example of the city attorney acting on impulse to investigate something that has nothing to do with him.

“I think that the parameters are to be responsible and reasonable,” Maienschein said. “I think investigating KPBS for cancelling that television show is ridiculous. It’s neither reasonable or responsible.”

For his part, Aguirre says the now-infamous KPBS issue was an “inquiry,” not an investigation. And he said the probe was conducted quietly, in the form of a public records act request to the television station that only became a public issue when the records request was leaked to The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Amy Lepine, who once worked in Aguirre’s office, has first-hand experience of working on one of Aguirre’s task forces — teams of lawyers and investigators formed to tackle an ad-hoc issue.

Lepine was the kindest of Aguirre’s opponents in talking about the incumbent’s investigations. She said Aguirre’s tactic of compiling interim reports that update the public about the status of an ongoing investigation has been a valuable asset at City Hall.

But Lepine said Aguirre has overstepped his mark on some of the investigations and said the interim reports were “rambling” and poorly written. She said the City Attorney’s Office’s investigative efforts could be better focused elsewhere.

Lepine suggested one investigation the office could complete is to investigate the city’s infrastructure deficiencies for potential liabilities. By assessing the city’s sewer lines for weaknesses, for example, Lepine said, the city could find out where landslides might potentially occur. In completing such a probe, the City Attorney’s Office shouldn’t have to wait for direction from the City Council, Lepine said.

“That is acting proactively in a proper role of the city attorney — to act proactively to stave off liability on the part of your client,” Lepine said. “That’s fully within his purview and his decision.”

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

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