San Diego politics lately has been mired in courtroom battles: Whom did voters really intend to elect as mayor in November? What kind of sordid deals did the feds find going on over at City Hall? On the periphery of the big-picture questions sits a far more basic one: Who's going to pay the lawyer's tab?
Both Mayor Dick Murphy and City Councilmember Donna Frye amassed enormous legal debts from the disputed November mayoral election, and City Councilmembers Michael Zucchet and Ralph Inzunza have stacks of legal bills from their ongoing federal corruption trial.
To make ends meet, they've hit up their supporters for cash-but unlike previous elected officials who passed the hat to cover legal costs, they have a new aide in their battle for justice.
May 2 marked the first disclosure deadline for legal defense funds, a new classification of contributions established after an overhaul of the city's Election Campaign Control Ordinance (ECCO) which took effect in January. Legal defense funds allow a candidate or elected official to raise money to cover the costs of a legal action related to their "campaign, the electoral process, or...a City Official's governmental duties."
Stacey Fulhorst, executive director of the city's Ethics Commission, the agency charged with enforcing ECCO, said that in the past candidates used campaign contributions to cover legal costs. With a legal defense fund, supporters of a candidate or official can contribute up to $250 for each distinct legal action.
"I think the purpose, really, behind them is that if a candidate was in the middle of an election and had to use all of their campaign funds to pay attorney's fees but were ultimately exonerated, they would have no money left to campaign," said Fulhorst, who noted that the concept of legal defense funds came up in the very early days of the Ethics Commission, long before federal investigators started sniffing around city finances. "The concept behind it is that they should have another means to raise money but also that very similar limits should be imposed so that no one person can have any undue influence by actually paying all of the attorney's fees for an office holder or a candidate."
That may be the goal, but in the case of Murphy, who has faced six legal challenges in recent months, one person could contribute up to $1,500-$250 to each legal defense fund. Funds can only be used for legal defense and when a matter is closed, a candidate or official must return leftover contributions, roll the money over into another legal defense fund or donate the remainder to the city.
Here's the most recent tally of who's raised how much, how much they still owe and who's contributed to whom.
Remaining debt: $699
Five of Murphy's legal defense funds are for challenges to the November election and the sixth was established just weeks ago when the Ethics Commission announced it had randomly selected Murphy's 2004 campaign, along with those of 15 other city officials, for audit.
Murphy has paid his attorney Bob Ottilie nearly $65,000 and another $5,000 went to Murphy's daughter, Kelly, who's listed as a consultant.
The roll of hundreds of contributors includes an array of developers, business owners, appointees and lobbyists. Notables include: Ted Roth, who at the last minute bailed on his recent appointment to the board of the troubled San Diego City Employee Retirement System (SDCERS); Reg Avitek, who serves as outside council for the SDCERS; Robert Butterfield, an attorney representing the Municipal Employees Association (MEA) in legal maters with SDCERS; Ann Smith, an attorney who represents the MEA and is directly involved with ongoing labor negotiations; Sylvia Rios, who was reappointed as one of the city's Port Commissioners in February; and Councilman Scott Peters, who contributed $250 to all five funds.
Remaining debt: $38,374
To date, Frye has accrued nearly $50,000 in legal bills from three challenges to her November write-in candidacy. Earlier this week, Frye sent an e-mail to supporters asking for help retiring the remaining debt before she launches her second mayoral campaign.
Her filings show contributions from retirees, college professors, teachers and blue-collar workers. Many were for $100 or less and some came from as far away as San Francisco. Contributors include: bail-bond royalty George (King) Stahlman; City Hall watchdog Mel Shapiro; San Diego Libertarian Party Chair Edward Teyssier and Patagonia clothing company founder Yvon Chouinard and his wife Melinda.
Remaining debt: $0
Blessedly free of contributions from Las Vegas donors, Inzunza's filings show he has paid his attorney Michael Pancer about $13,000. That amount and his lack of debt pales in comparison to Zuchett's, which could either mean Inzunza has a far less expensive attorney or is privately financing much of his legal defense.
Notable contributors include: seven members of the Hueso clan including Benjamin Hueso, a former city redevelopment staffer, who, despite Inzunza's support, lost a bid for the San Diego school board last year; Airport Authority chair Joe Craver; Edco Disposal Corp. COO Steve South and his wife; City Park and Recreation Board member Daniel Coffey and wife Pepper as well as former Democratic City Councilmember and Congressman Jim Bates.
Remaining debt (including loan): $279,262.28
Zucchet raised more money than Inzunza and also acrued $246,262.28 in legal bills. That's possibly why he made a $33,000 personal loan to his defense fund, which he no doubt hopes to recoup after he is acquitted. While several donations came from as far away as Texas and Hawaii, he may have to expand his scope even further if he hopes to retire the huge debt-which keeps growing every day he's on trial-in this lifetime.
A handful of city firefighters passed the boot to help the councilman, who previously worked for the firefighters union, and several downtown big wigs also did their part. Notable contributors include: Elaine and Murray Galinson, two influential contributors to the national Democratic party; John Kern, Murphy's recently retired chief of staff; Sol Price, a wealthy investor and local Democratic supporter; Wayne Raffesberger, a Republican who ran against Zucchet in 2002 and now serves on the Center City Development Corporation's board of directors.