The retired police detective who allegedly called for Police Chief Bill Lansdowne’s ouster in exchange for assistance with an illegal campaign finance scheme met with the police chief and ex-Mayor Bob Filner’s chief of staff weeks before he suggested the top cop’s firing.
Former officer Ernesto “Ernie” Encinas and lobbyist Marco Polo Cortés, both implicated in a political scandal revealed earlier this week, were among a group that tried to persuade Lansdowne to ease up on liquor license restrictions opposed by a Gaslamp club owner the two were assisting.
Attorney Bill Adams and former Chief of Staff Lee Burdick confirmed both men were part of a team that attended some meetings at City Hall in an effort to push police to back down. One was held in August 2013 and another earlier that year. Lansdowne has referred all comments to the FBI, which continues to investigate the campaign finance scandal.
Encinas owns a security company affiliated with several downtown clubs and bars and is at least affiliated with another firm that assists such businesses with the liquor license process. Cortés is a lobbyist who has represented similar clientele. Adams said Lansdowne was their most substantial roadblock to a liquor license that would allow the club – then known as On Broadway – to expand and continue to stay open until 2 a.m., as it had for years.
But the meeting didn’t go the group’s way.
“Our negotiations went nowhere,” Adams said.
After the meeting, Adams said he sent a letter to the city attorney’s office threatening a lawsuit over the license issue.
Around the same time, Councilwoman Marti Emerald’s public calendar shows she met with Encinas and Cortés about the police department’s vice policies and alcohol licensing. A spokesman for Emerald said the councilwoman met with the duo to hear their concerns about night club security policies and alcohol licensing permits but couldn’t immediately provide more details on the specifics of the conversation. The spokesman said Emerald often meets with stakeholders to discuss police issues due to her position as chair of the City Council’s public safety subcommittee so such a gathering wasn’t unusual.
The liquor license saga began in mid-2012. State Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control records show a transfer of ownership that February followed by inspection notices and plans to expand.
Those plans triggered a new application process that allowed San Diego police to weigh in on potential state liquor license restrictions.
The club owners weren’t satisfied with the police department’s recommendation that the club – then shut down for renovations – close earlier than it had in the past. Club owners disagreed and haggled with police for months.
But by early or mid-2013 – no one seems to remember exactly when – Encinas, Cortés and the club owners called a meeting at the mayor’s office.
Burdick recalls the owner complained of $100,000 in monthly losses due to the delayed reopening of the club. At the time, Filner promised to look into the situation.
Months passed. The group requested another meeting, which was eventually scheduled for the third week of August.
By that time, a sexual harassment scandal had enveloped Filner. He had taken time off to go to an inpatient behavioral therapy program. So Burdick, then Filner’s chief of staff, served as his representative at the meeting. Lansdowne and two other officers also attended at Filner’s request.
Burdick now says their gathering place was significant.
“I believe that this meeting was being held in the mayor’s office rather the police chief’s office because ultimately if the police chief did not change his position, they wanted the mayor to direct him to change his position,” Burdick said.
She said that August meeting kicked off with Lansdowne expressing his concerns.
Burdick recalls Lansdowne saying he worried kitchen and restaurant renovations would amount to a club expansion that meant more drunken Gaslamp visitors would descend on city streets at 2 a.m. Officers were already overwhelmed at that time, Burdick said.
Lansdowne also offered a potential compromise: Police and the club owners could sign off on a license that restricted the club’s hours and then revisit the issue in six months if the expansion didn’t create any public safety concerns.
The business owner complained the restrictions would put his club at a competitive disadvantage and said he didn’t think it was fair that police wanted to add restrictions to his liquor license.
Burdick said she made it clear that Filner wouldn’t undermine Lansdowne.
“It was my final statement that the mayor would not second guess the police chief on an issue of public safety, nor did I believe that he would direct the police chief to change his mind,” she said.
At that point, Burdick said the group – which included both Encinas and Cortés – asked Burdick, Lansdowne and the other officers to leave the room so they could talk privately.
About 10 minutes later, the group said it wasn’t interested in Lansdowne’s proposal.
“The mayor’s office was trying to get us to agree to something we didn’t believe we had to agree to,” Adams said.
Burdick didn’t walk away concerned or suspicious. She and Lt. Dan Plein, who oversees the police department’s liquor license process, both told Voice of San Diego that meetings over such disputes are common. Plein said he met with both Encinas and Cortés multiple times about this and other licenses in the months before the meeting.
“It was a constituent with a permitting problem who was asking the mayor to intervene and help them overcome the obstacle,” Burdick said. “It happens every day.”
But as Filner was headed out the door, the club owner made progress.
Adams said the group later contacted the city attorney’s office and worked out an agreement.
State records show On Broadway, then doing business as Karma Lounge & Restaurant, received a new liquor license by the end of August, just a day before Filner’s resignation was effective.
A few weeks later, FBI agents allege Encinas met with a confidential informant to talk about how to funnel money from Mexican businessman Jose Susumo Azano Matsura to a mayoral candidate running to replace Filner in a special election.
That’s when Encinas apparently said the police chief’s removal was the one thing he wanted in exchange for his assistance.
“Enicinas related that he wanted the next mayor to fire the chief of police and replace him with a person of Encinas’ choosing,” a special agent wrote in a complaint unsealed Tuesday.
Encinas’ attorney Jeremy Warren believes that statement is missing some context.
“Ernesto Encinas was speaking entirely based on what he thought was best for his fellow law enforcement officers and the city of San Diego and it had nothing to do with any business interests of his own,” Warren said.
Ironically, the club he and others argued for in August remains shuttered.
The building with understated yellow awnings at the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and Broadway looks abandoned but for scaffolding along the street. A peek behind the temporary plywood holding up the scaffolding shows floodlights hanging from the ceiling, workbenches, spare wood, tools and everything else you’d expect where renovations are taking place.
But late Thursday, no construction work was under way.
Andrew Keatts contributed to this report.