March 7 2012 11:33 AM

Don't be too quick to judge amid allegations against utility antagonist

Michael Shames

If you made a list of all the prominent people in San Diego and ranked them according to how likely it would be that they'd be accused of cooking books, laundering money and improperly feathering their own nest, Michael Shames' name would probably be near the bottom.

And yet there he is, the object of a federal grand-jury investigation and probably a civil suit stemming from accusations by two members of his staff at the Utility Consumers Action Network (UCAN), where Shames, as executive director, has been fighting the good fight on behalf of utility ratepayers for the last quarter-century. By outward appearances, at the very least, Shames has been one of the good guys, battling much larger forces such as SDG&E and San Diego's water and sewer departments.

In this case, it was the accused, along with his nonprofit's Board of Directors, who brought the unseemly charges out into the open, strategically filing in court to dissolve UCAN in order to force his accusers and their lawyer— none other than excitable former City attorney Mike Aguirre—to file a lawsuit or go away. Aguirre has until the end of March to do so.

Shames immediately cast the brouhaha as a personal clash between him and Aguirre, telling me last Thursday to expect a “bloodbath” as the drama plays out in coming weeks. In a Facebook post, Shames said that Aguirre has been “terrorizing” UCAN board members and staff behind the scenes and that he and the former city attorney “have long-standing memberships to the same Mutual Distaste Society.”

From a public-relations standpoint, making Aguirre the subject is an obvious choice; Shames knows that Aguirre is widely perceived as having a few screws loose. I immediately bought into that narrative, commenting on KPBS's Evening Edition TV show last Friday that Aguirre is prone to volatility and capable of metaphorical terrorism. On the other hand, I remarked, Shames is “affable” and “nice.” It's truly a “Say it isn't so” situation,” I said.

After the show aired, I heard from a former UCAN employee, who painted an unflattering picture of Shames' management of the organization and its staff, although having little to do with the serious allegations against him. I won't go into the details of what the person said because this employee didn't want to be named. I bring it up only because it reminded me to avoid reaching conclusions too soon. It made me realize that I have no idea what Shames has or hasn't done.

What we do know is that, a year ago, a young UCAN staff attorney named David Peffer brought to the Board of Directors a series of allegations against Shames. UCAN hired a lawyer, Paul Dostart, to investigate the charges. Dostart reported back that while UCAN could stand to clean up its act a little bit, Shames is clear of criminal wrongdoing. Peffer was unimpressed with Dostart's work product, and that's when he sought Aguirre's help. We also know that a system of bonuses at the core of the allegations have pushed Shames' annual compensation north of $200,000, the reasonableness of which will be central to the ultimate legal determination. I can also report that, by all accounts, the UCAN offices have been the setting of much internal turmoil for the better part of two years. What I don't know is exactly how that turmoil, which centers on the future leadership of UCAN (Shames had planned to step down at the end of 2011), interacts with Peffer's allegations.

In my experience, Aguirre can be alternately manic and levelheaded. When I talked to him on Friday, he was measured, saying that his goal had simply been to convince the UCAN board to place Shames on administrative leave and work to untangle all the financial and legal knots. Aguirre likes to connect dots and reach broad conclusions about what the patterns say, but he stopped short of doing so in this case, although he does question UCAN's overall effectiveness on behalf of ratepayers.

The federal government's interest in all this raises an eyebrow, but it's not like the FBI and the Justice Department haven't gone on a few wild goose chases in their time. Shames, for his part, is certain that he'll come out clean on the other side.

As I know all too well, it's easy to react quickly to startling news. My advice is to wait until more facts are in before you mete out judgment.

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