"The people of San Diego have a right to an open and honest government. We are committed to ensuring that San Diego is represented by officials who are free from corrupt influences."
-U.S. Attorney Carol Lam
Well, Carol, if that's the way you feel about things, let's get busy checking into those sweetheart deals for developers and sports-team owners.
In San Diego, we've heard the steady drip, drip, drip of political corruption for at least a decade, and law enforcement's typical reaction has been, "Huh?" Now that the local U.S. attorney has raised the bar in terms of what she expects of local government, there's no time like the present to start kicking some corrupt butt.
It should come as no surprise that the powers over at the Union-Tribune are frantically feeding on the chum of the City Hall-a-Go-Go story, wasting no time in calling for the heads of Councilmembers Michael Zucchet, Charles Lewis and Ralphie Inzunza. The U-T, in an editorial the day after the indictments, said its call for the councilmen's resignations mirrored its recommendation two years prior when then-Councilmember Valerie Stallings was facing similar pleas to quit.
But Stallings, a major proponent of the downtown ballpark who benefited remarkably from her relationship with Padres owner John Moores, admitted early on that she had suffered from a serious ethical lapse in judgment. She eventually admitted to violating two state misdemeanors, but the U.S. Attorney's office was quick to point out-almost surreally-that Moores had not attempted to buy political favor with the company stock, airplane tickets, use of a car and his Carmel home that he provided to Stallings.
"John Moores did not commit a violation of law. It is not a crime to give gifts to public officials," said U.S. Attorney Gregory Vega, Lam's predecessor, at a January 2001 news conference immediately following Stallings' resignation.
That was also the opinion of then-District Attorney Paul Pfingst, who now spends his time on the sidelines giving his two-bit opinions to any television station that will listen. Vega now sits on the city's see-no-evil Ethics Commission, which has hand-slapped only two local politicians and one political insider since it began its alleged pursuit of political corruption last year.
"We've had at least eight years-counting the prior DA administration and the current city attorney's run-where there's been absolutely no political-corruption enforcement whatsoever," said Michael Aguirre, who is running to replace termed-out City Attorney Casey Gwinn. Lam "has raised the bar, and if all of us are going to come together as a community to clean up San Diego, then that means that we have to apply it across the board.... We need to open the eyes and apply the law."
The U-T may have shown its hand last week when it quickly glommed on to the notion that the petroleum-based tank farms situated to the east of Qualcomm Stadium might be reason enough to declare the stadium site blighted, a finding required to create a redevelopment area and pave the way for the Chargers' plans there.
Whether those plans are at the heart of the U-T's foaming-at-the-mouth coverage of the strip-club indictments can only be speculated upon at this point, but Aguirre sees the writing on the wall. "They can't write editorials saying people should resign for moral reasons so they can hurry up and start approving more immoral policies," he cautioned.
The daily, repetitive pounding that the U-T has decided to dole out on the three councilmembers does little to propel the story forward. The paper has even misquoted the indictment in its fervor to get rid of the three labor-backed councilmen.
On Sunday, in its "Notable & Quotable" editorial column, the U-T incorrectly has indicted Las Vegas lobbyist Lance Malone telling Zucchet, "Just get the item on the agenda" and "we'll do the rest." The indictment actually alleges that Malone said "we'll deal with the rest."
The rest of what? The remaining councilmembers who took stripper money? (Remember that councilmembers Toni Atkins and Jim "MadDog" Madaffer benefited from the strip club's largesse as well, in the form of campaign contributions, and where was this alleged rewrite of the "no-touch" law going to go without the support of a majority of councilmembers? And just what was the role of local cops in this scheme? Did they indeed tell the indicted that they wanted the law rewritten?)
So, might the U-T have benefited from its kid-glove handling of Moores? In its Sunday edition, the U-T included a story about the Omni Hotel-actually a hotel with mega-priced condos built above-that Moores is building next door to the downtown ballpark. The story said the Copley Press, owner of the U-T, "has bought two of the units and plans to combine them into a suite to be used principally for business entertainment."
Moores, meanwhile, has purchased the 9,000-square-foot top floor for $9 million, the story added.
If this all sounds just a bit too cozy, then you just haven't been around town long enough to watch the conservative paper intermingle with the glitterati.
"The big and powerful have to be invited to the same party," Aguirre said about leveling the playing field to root out true corruption among local politicos. "The big and powerful need to come to the bar of justice as well. The law needs to be just as powerfully enforced against the rich and powerful as it is against the individual."
Some political observers suggest that the religious fanaticism that trickles down from the country's top prosecutor, U.S. Attorney John Aschroft, may have played a role in the current council indictments. "I call it the "ick' factor," said one City Hall worker. "Why go after developers when you can go after strip-club owners?"
If you're the U-T, why indeed?