March 28 2012 10:00 AM

Binders containing confidential City Council documents found in a North Park alley

3-28 news art-binders
It was Friday night and stay-at-home dad Joe Boda finally had a moment to himself. His wife had taken over watching the kids, so he grabbed his longboard and started skating through the alley behind his house in North Park.

He was distracted by what seemed to be a lot of garbage strewn on the ground, as if someone had been scavenging in the dumpsters (as frequently happens in North Park). Then he noticed a stack of binders, some in a cardboard box, others just lying open on the ground next to a recycling bin.

The city of San Diego's seal caught his eye. The words “confidential” and “pension reform” jumped out at him.

“I know it shouldn't make me suspicious, but anything related to pension reform—it was just such a huge problem,” Boda says. “Someone had to see what it was.”

So, he gathered up the binders and contacted CityBeat. Within an hour, he was pushing his bicycle into our lobby, the binders packed into one of those bike trailers used for hauling small children.

Scott Peters - Photo by Dave Maass

It took only a quick glance to determine the box Boda unloaded contained several years' worth of internal files from the office of former Council President Scott Peters, currently a member of the Port of San Diego's Board of Commissioners and a candidate for U.S. Congress. In all, there were five binders, plus a stack of loose documents. Also in the box were assorted personal papers and photos linked to Woo-Jin Shim, an aide who worked in Peters' office. At the very bottom: a cassette tape of Celine Dion's “The Color of My Love.”

The binders, each about 4 inches thick, contained thousands of pages of pension-crisis material dating back to the late 1990s and as current as 2007. They start with historical documents that detail the original under-funding of the pension system and continue through whistleblower Diann Shipione's warnings, the Securities and Exchange Commission investigation and the political storm that ensued over external legal bills. Former City attorney Mike Aguirre is an ever-present antagonist in the files, attacking Peters (whom Aguirre would face in his failed 2008 reelection bid) over conflicts of interest and for giving “inappropriate legal advice” to his colleagues on the City Council.

A large bulk of the documents were already public domain—meeting agendas, press releases, proposed ordinances, memoranda, formal legal opinions, dense actuarial analyses and PowerPoint presentations—many easily retrievable from the city's website. However, the files also contained legal documents marked with warnings that they were confidential and protected by attorney-client privilege. There were also original copies of letters, including one flattering hand-written letter to Peters from controversial union leader Judie Italiano, then president of the Municipal Employees Association.

One would think it'd be a treasure trove for pension-reform nerds, but those we contacted didn't seem particularly interested, considering how much scrutiny the debacle has already garnered over the years. After an initial flipthrough, CityBeat's “Spin Cycle” columnist, John R. Lamb, concluded that the most disturbing thing was the Celine Dion cassette. We contacted Aguirre, who offered to look at the documents and advise us on an attorney-client basis, but not for citation. We turned him down.

We also called former City Councilmember Donna Frye, whose name is attached to several documents in the files. Upon learning that they contained privileged material, Frye, who's often cited as an open-government advocate, insisted that we immediately alert Peters' office and the City Clerk's office.

So, we did. Peters' campaign spokesperson, MaryAnne Pintar, who also served as his chief of staff, said she'd never have authorized the records be released to anyone but the city clerk.

“We had a very stringent archive process at end of term that people were supposed to follow, and I am really disappointed that didn't happen,” Pintar said. “I'm really surprised if there are original documents in there. They should never have the left the city.”

When we alerted City Clerk Elizabeth Maland, she contacted City attorney Jan Goldsmith's office, which decided that, as “work product,” the binders were city property and needed to be returned. Having already duplicated the most interesting documents, we agreed, on the condition that a selection of the records be reviewed and a determination be made as to whether they were, in fact, confidential. Maland came to CityBeat's office to take custody of the records. We did not hand over the Celine Dion tape.

Of 10 documents reviewed by a staff attorney, five should have remained confidential, City attorney spokesperson Jonathan Heller told CityBeat. These included documents regarding vetting of appointees, labor negotiations, litigation matters and the “inappropriate legal advice” memo from Aguirre. In one case, the attorney-client privilege was between Peters and his outside counsel, the Sheppard Mullin law firm, and should not have been seen by anyone outside Peters' staff.

Shim, who's pursuing an MBA, served as a budget and policy analyst for Peters from 2004 to 2008, then went to work for 10 months as a labor-relations officer with the city. In email correspondence with CityBeat, Shim said he was “asked by Labor Relations to bring [his] pension related documents from the council office” and did so without Peters' knowledge. He referred to the documents as his “personal working file,” which he discarded when he recently moved.

“I am shocked and appalled that someone had the audacity to deliberately go through my personal effects and turn them over to media,” Shim wrote. “This is an invasion of my personal privacy.”

After CityBeat notified Shim that the City attorney's office determined the documents were public property, Shim acknowledged the error.

“Since I was remaining a city employee, I took some documents with me that I thought might be helpful,” he wrote. “In hindsight, I wish I had turned them in when I left the city.”

Scott Chadwick, the city's human resources director, who was Shim's supervisor at the time, said he has no idea what Shim's talking about.

“I have never instructed anyone to take documents from a council member's office, or any other office, and have confirmed with my staff as well as former staff that at no time did anyone from the Labor Relations Division of the Human Resources Department instruct Woo-Jin Shim to remove documents from Scott Peters' office,” Chadwick said in a prepared statement.

The City attorney's office is still reviewing the binders. Documents determined not to be confidential will be turned over to the city clerk, who will then decide which documents no longer need to be retained, which may already be on file and which need to be archived. Maland said it's important to have strict records policies (her office is currently working with Goldsmith to update them), including when and how documents are disposed of when they are no longer relevant. Keeping them, as Shim did, could create legal liabilities for the city.

Maland said her staff is planning a meticulous review of the documents.

“These poor things—considering the journey they've been on, the last thing I want to do is throw them into a box,” Maland said.

The same can't be said of the Celine Dion tape.

Email or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.


See all events on Friday, Dec 9