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Voice of San Diego recently asked all city attorney candidates to release a list of their past clients. Only one refused: Port Commissioner Rafael Castellanos.
But he has at least one relationship that’s already kept him from voting at the Port Commission, where he’s had a seat since 2013.
Castellanos has recused himself from at least 18 votes the commission took. In that time, all other commissioners combined recused themselves just six times.
Almost every time Castellanos stepped aside for a vote, it was because of one company: Sunroad Enterprises. Either he or someone else at his firm represents Sunroad.
It would be wrong, though, to assume Castellanos is shy about his connection to Sunroad or other developers. Despite taking flak from a rival Democrat, Castellanos is proud of his connection to the building industry and believes he should be an advocate for it as city attorney.
It’s not clear, however, how many issues he would have to recuse himself from if he wins the job of city attorney.
The city’s conflict of interest code dictates when officials need to recuse themselves from decision-making due to financial interests. It doesn’t apply to past clients.
The State Bar, however, governs when lawyers should recuse themselves from representing past clients. Those rules say a lawyer shouldn’t represent someone who opposes their former client if the lawyer has obtained confidential information.
Sunroad’s real-estate division developed or manages more than 20 properties, including residential, commercial and resort projects. The company also has more than 10 car dealerships in San Diego and Mexico.
The company has a history of running into legal issues that forced the city attorney to get involved.
Former City Attorney Mike Aguirre sued Sunroad over a 12-story tower it built in Kearny Mesa that violated the Federal Aviation Administration’s safety standard because it was too tall. Sunroad ultimately agreed to shave two stories off the building.
More recently, the company built a Kearny Mesa apartment complex too close to city-owned park land. Sunroad needed the city to agree not to build anything on the edges of the park so the development could comply with fire accessibility standards. Mayor Bob Filner agreed to give the developer what it wanted in exchange for a $100,000 donation to two community projects. It was reportedly the subject of a Justice Department investigation.
Sunroad is redeveloping a marina it operates on Harbor Island into a 175-room hotel. That’s the project that caused most of Castellanos’ recusals on the Port Commission.
That’s not his only connection. This week, Sunroad donated $2,500 to an independent political action committee supporting Castellanos’ campaign.
Independent PACs can accept unlimited campaign donations – the Sunroad donation is more than twice the max an individual could give to Castellanos directly – but they can’t coordinate with the campaign for the candidate they support.
In an interview, Castellanos said he’d decide when to recuse himself on matters involving Sunroad, or any other client, just like any of his opponents would have to do over past clients.
“Any attorney in a sophisticated private practice would potentially have former clients who might have future business with the city,” he said. “So, a pretty run-of-the-mill issue.”
To one of Castellanos’ opponents, environmental attorney Bryan Pease, the Sunroad connection is less important as a conflict of interest, and more important as an indication of Castellanos’ work history.
“He doesn’t ever talk about the fact that he literally represents developers,” Pease said.
Pease has the endorsement of the San Diego Progressive Democratic Club, which he said is an indication that he’s the true progressive in the race.
Pease said it’s not possible to work for developers and be a true progressive.
“(Castellanos) has a lot of people in the progressive community drinking the Kool-Aid, they really think he’s their guy,” Pease said. “But lots of developers and businesses also think he’s their guy. He says what he wants people to hear depending on who he’s talking to.”
And yes, Pease said: It is a contradiction to work for developers and call yourself a progressive.
Castellanos stands by his work with developers. He sees it as a strength.
In fact, at forums he says his history with big development deals is what makes him the most qualified candidate.
The city keeps agreeing to bad deals, like the Chargers ticket guarantee, Castellanos said, because it hasn’t had good enough legal counsel to save it from itself.
If voters approve a new Chargers stadium, he said, they’ll want him going through the deal to make sure it all checks out. After all, he’s the guy who often represents developers.
“Developers are often treated unfairly,” he said. “Everything we do in the first world takes place in development. Where you shop, where you live, where your children are educated. Not all development is bad.”
The mayor and City Council need to adopt policies to incentivize responsible development, he said. If a project doesn’t fit those standards, the city should figure it out quickly and kill it; projects that languish for years are bad for everyone.
He said that lengthy delay is often because the city has a nasty habit of litigating every dispute when it should instead negotiate a solution.
Litigation is costly and unpredictable, he said. And, it’s a problem that the people who decide to extend lawsuits do so at taxpayer expense.
“It’s a moral hazard,” he said. “If they were a private party funding their own litigation, they’d have a stronger incentive to end it quickly. But governments are not good at getting themselves out of those disputes.”