It's one of those stories ambitious reporters wait for.
Kourosh Hangafarin, having won an unusually contentious appointment to the Port Commission with the backing of an embattled Mayor Dick Murphy, travels to Cuba, a communist country facing federal trade and travel restrictions. Ostensibly there on official government business, Hangafarin makes international headlines when he signs an agreement establishing economic ties between Cuba and the Port of San Diego. But Port officials, still bruised from a previous scandal, quickly issue a public statement denying that Hangafarin was on official business or that he had the authority to sign any agreement-which may or may not have violated U.S. trade law.
Add that Hangafarin traveled to Cuba at the invitation of a local businessman whose company also signed a $30,000 deal with the Cubans, and questions of a possible conflict of interest arise. Those questions take on additional urgency after an Internet search shows Hangafarin has ties to dozens of mysterious companies.
That was where the story stood two weeks ago, a week after Hangafarin made his ill-fated trip to Cuba, and at least one reporter committed several moving violations on his way to the Vista courthouse to pull Hangafarin's divorce records. Loaded with information about his personal life and financial standing, the records would surely help to further condemn this dubious public official. But something happened on the way to hanging Hangafarin.
When questioned, Hangafarin was cooperative and forthcoming, providing seemingly reasonable answers and evidence indicating the Cuba ordeal had stemmed from a simple misunderstanding. And with a little explanation, seemingly nefarious business connections quickly dissolved.
However, it was already clear that the legitimate questions raised by Hangafarin's trip had taken on greater significance than their ultimate answers. Despite a pending investigation by a prominent ethicist, the Union-Tribune's editorial board came down hard on the man, and both public and political pressures were brought to bear. Scrambling to protect its image, port officials further distanced themselves from their new colleague, and, as attention turned to the vetting procedures for political appointees, so did the mayor.
Another week would pass before Hangafarin would be forced to resign, but from the very beginning, his fate was reasonably clear. Amid an onslaught of media scrutiny, political pressure and ass-covering, Hangafarin and the truth never stood a chance.
Controversy surrounded Hangafarin from the moment newly re-elected Murphy nominated him to replace Peter Q. Davis. Murphy had yanked Davis from the Port Commission because Davis had the temerity to challenge the mayor's incumbency last year. The nomination of Hangafarin drew additional scrutiny because it was part of an act of political vengeance.
A former County Planning Commissioner, Hangafarin wasn't new to public service and brought baggage along with his experience. A community planning group actively opposed his nomination and stories surfaced that he had been verbally abusive to county staffers and was hard to work with. And there was a warning issued by county lawyers after he sent e-mails to county employees inviting them to attend Republican fundraisers.
An Iranian immigrant, Hangafarin had a unique ability to access deep pockets within San Diego's Iranian-American community. He helped raise money for President Bush, Congressman Darrell Issa, Murphy and every member of the current City Council, excluding Councilmember Donna Frye.
It didn't take long for some to question whether Hangafarin had bought his nomination, suggesting that Murphy was not only vengeful, but also engaged in patronage. But when the time came for the City Council to approve Murphy's nomination, Hangafarin's appointment was never in doubt. With letters of support from Councilmembers Brian Maienschein, Michael Zucchet, Jim Madaffer and Scott Peters, and the nod from mayor, the vote to appoint Hangafarin to the Port Commission was a mere formality.
It was at a victory celebration later that night that Hangafarin talked with Alex Procopio, an acquaintance and neighbor, who suggested that the port consider establishing trade relations with Cuba. Despite an economic embargo, in 2000 the Clinton administration began allowing U.S. companies to export food, medicine and agricultural products, resulting in more than a billion dollars worth of trade for U.S. interests.
Intrigued by the prospect of helping San Diego cash in, Hangafarin encouraged Procopio to attend a meeting of port officials the following day. There Procopio pitched his Cuba idea to the newly sworn-in Hangafarin and his colleagues, and invited them to attend a conference hosted by his company, American Trading Services, in Cuba later that month. The idea was well received and several top port officials indicated they would like to attend. The following day, Procopio sent Hangafarin a letter making the invitation official.
But the most crucial part of Hangafarin's story occurred one week later at a Feb. 8 meeting of the port's Board of Commissioners. That's when Commission Chair Bill Hall told Hangafarin that the Cuba trip would have to be scrapped due to logistical problems. Hangafarin says he asked for, and received, Hall's permission to make the trip himself, although he was told that he would have to cover all costs.
Documents show that later that day, Audrey Kroeger, the port staffer who oversees commissioner affairs, e-mailed Hangafarian a copy of a letter outlining the purpose of his trip. Hangafarin says the letter, written on port stationary and dated Feb. 3, was sent to him without his prompting. Addressed to the head of Alimport, the Cuban state-run import agency, it stated:
"Commissioner Kourosh Hangafarian will be participating in the trade show sponsored by American Trading Services, LLC on February 22-23, 2005, in Cuba.
"He is eager to meet with you and is hopeful that the San Diego Unified Port District will be able to work with Cuba and offer an economically viable solution to the west coast agricultural companies wishing to conduct business with Alimport."
Port officials claim Hangafarin was later told not to use the letter, but he says he never received that message, and it's unclear how or when that communication occurred. CityBeat contacted Kroeger to ask who initially approved the letter and who rescinded it, but she declined to comment, referring questions to port spokeswoman Irene McCormack, who says she doesn't know and hoped an ongoing investigation would provide answers. Hall was also unable to confirm the details of either communication but says he didn't rescind the letter.
Regardless, it seems assumptions were made. Hangafarin thought he was set to go, and Hall believed Hangafarin had read between the lines.
"It may be a concern about semantics, but if it is not a port-sanctioned trip, paid for by the port, it's not a port trip," says Hall. "Could there have been a misunderstanding? Yes there could have been."
And there might have been more than just one misunderstanding.
On Feb. 11, just days after receiving Hall's approval to go to Cuba, Hangafarin departed on a 10-day trip to New Zealand and Australia that would bring him no closer to home than Los Angeles International Airport before heading to Cuba. It was on the first trip while in Australia that Hangafarin and representatives from a local refrigeration company and an Australian citrus company signed a letter agreeing to extend their working relationship for three years. Hangafarin says Ron Popham, a senior port official, handed him the document, which he'd never seen before, and told him to sign it.
"He said, "Kourosh, read this and if it looks good, sign it,'" Hangafarian recalls. He did, and no one got upset. Hangafarin says that experience later factored into his decision to sign the Cuba deal.
And Hangafarin says there was another reason why he thought he had not just the authority, but a directive, to foster new and old trade relations. On the same day he was sworn in as a port comissioner, his colleagues, apparently impressed with the Cuba idea, created an ad-hoc committee specifically to identify potential sources of new revenue. They named Hangafarin chair.
"Why would I have embarrassed myself if I'd have known that I'm not representing the Port of San Diego," he asks.
With no answer to that question and evidence seeming to support Hangafarin's claim that a misunderstanding created the Cuba controversy, one might expect he'd get the benefit of the doubt, at least until evidence to the contrary surfaced. While it may be unrealistic to presume the city's political gossips would grant him any quarter, one might expect more from his colleagues at the port or the city's newspaper of record.
When Hangafarin signed the agreement with Cuba on Feb. 25, it immediately became an international story, and the involvement of the controversy-tainted port commissioner was merely an ironic footnote.
Earlier that week, the U.S. Treasury Department, which strictly regulates trade with Cuba, issued a ruling requiring Cuba to pay cash in advance for goods before a ship could leave its U.S. port. Days later, Pedro Alvarez Borrego, the head of Alimport, responded by threatening to halt trade with U.S. companies. It happened on the same day that he and Hangafarin signed the agreement establishing trade relations between the port and Cuba.
Surprised by the news of the agreement, Hall issued a public statement, saying Hangafarin was in Cuba on personal business.
"This was not authorized by or discussed with the balance of the Board of Port Commissioners," he wrote.
While technically accurate, Hangafarin says that statement grossly simplified the situation, but Hall left him an out, writing that because he was new to the board "he may not have been thoroughly aware of the protocol concerning trade issues and agreements."
Union-Tribune reporter Caitlin Rother wrote the story, which appeared on the newspaper's front page the following day under the headline "Commissioner defies port officials."
In an interview, Hall again simplified the matter, telling Rother that when Hangafarin, already going to Cuba on "personal business," asked if it would be worthwhile to represent the port "we basically said no." Rother reported that Hangafarin, still in Cuba, had not returned her page.
The next day, Hangafarin, in contact with Hall and aware of the controversy, says he called Steve Cushman, a fellow port commissioner and acquaintance, and asked what everyone was so worked up about. He got an unexpected answer.
"The first thing he says is, "How could you condemn President Bush's action by signing this thing,'" Hangafarin recalls.
Cushman couldn't be reached for comment, and Hall rejected the idea that port officials reacted in deference to the president. However, John Kavulich, president of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a nonprofit organization that compiles and analyzes related data and information, says it's not that far-fetched. He points out that in the past two and a half years, the Bush administration has taken four actions, including the requirement that Cuba pay cash in advance, in hopes of curtailing legal trade agreements.
"In the president's view, any transaction that can help the Cuban government save money, can help the Cuban government be more efficient or help the Cuban government get better quality products for its people will delay the Cuban government's making changes in its behavior," he says.
But if port officials were worried that Hangafarin, a Bush supporter, had unwittingly undercut the president's plan to smoke out Fidel Castro, their concerns were never raised in public.
Instead, three days after the first article, Rother reported that the port had hired a prominent ethicist, Bob Stern, to probe Hangafarin's trip and explore possible conflicts of interest. The article raised concerns about Hangafarin's relationship with Procopio, noting that they lived in the same downtown condo and that Procopio's company helped arrange his travel to Cuba.
With Hangafarin on his way home and unavailable, Rother relied on Hall and McCormack, as well as documents provided by the port, for her information. While she quoted McCormack as saying Hall had told Hangafarin not to use the letter of introduction, Hall warned against rushing to judgment.
On the very same day, the U-T editorial board blasted Hangafarin. According to the editorial, Hangafarin "rushed off to Havana on an unauthorized "trade mission' and signed an import-export accord with Fidel Castro's regime.
"Hangafarin took the action even though his fellow commissioners explicitly rejected a port-sponsored junket to Cuba and directed Hangafarin to keep his travels there strictly personal," the editorial huffed. "Instead, he defiantly signed the agreement with Cuba on behalf of the Port Commission after obtaining a letter of introduction on Port Commission stationery."
The editorial called on Hangafarin to disclose his business interests, including those with Procopio and American Trading Services.
Bob Kittle, editor of the U-T's editorial page and author of the unsigned Hangafarin editorial, says he used the best facts at the time and "the best facts in hindsight, nothing has changed. That original editorial is as correct today as it was whenever it ran."
But choosing his words carefully, Hall told CityBeat the editorial made a stronger statement than he would have and noted that the trip was not a "trade mission" and that Hangafarin was apologetic rather than defiant.
Two days would pass before Rother finally caught up with Hangafarin and presented his version of events on the front page. Having conducted a four-hour interview with Hangafarin, she wrote that the embattled port commissioner had attributed the misunderstanding between himself and Hall to his own difficulties with the English language. She also noted that he was cooperating with Stern's investigation and had signed a sworn affidavit asserting that he covered all of his expenses related to the Cuba trip and wouldn't profit from the resulting agreement.
But the day after the story ran, Hangafarin says Rother told him he might want to rent some DVDs and hole up for awhile. Apparently, he wouldn't like the next story she was working on.
"In Iran we have an old saying that when you want to take a sheep to the slaughterhouse you have to fatten it up first," says Hangafarin, who claims he was butchered in Rother's next front-page story, headlined "Port rep's credentials are raising questions" and published last Monday. In it, Rother exposed various inconsistencies between Hangafarin's divorce papers, résumé and biography, as well as certain omissions related to the disclosure of his economic interests. In so doing, she also highlighted the city's lack of formal vetting procedures for political appointees.
Hangafarin says he objects to Rother's portrayal of many of those inconsistencies, claiming they had little to do with his trip to Cuba or his role as port commissioner. And Hangafarin says Rother wasn't interested in hearing his explanations-that she simply used details like his two previous bankruptcies and his agreement not to pay child support for his three children to paint him as a villain, he said.
True to U-T policy, Rother declined to comment on Hangafarin's allegations, instead passing CityBeat's questions on to U-T metro editor Lori Hearn.
"We made good faith efforts to contact Mr. Hangafarin throughout our reporting," Hearn wrote in an e-mail. "We ran a front-page story about Mr. Hangafarin's explanations when he returned and noted that we conducted a four-hour interview with him to make sure we gave him every chance to respond to questions. We talked with him at length before our March 7 story was published as well."
And Kelly McBride, an ethics specialist with the Poynter Institute, a Florida journalism school, who reviewed the U-T's coverage of the Hangafarin affair at CityBeat's request, says Rother and the U-T did a good job of fulfilling their watchdog role.
"It is reasonable to question his competence as a commissioner and his loyalties, given his financial background, and I think the stories do a good job of that without being overly skeptical," McBride wrote in an e-mail. "The conclusions reached early on are those of the other commissioners. Perhaps the U-T could have left more room for doubt about the appropriateness of the Cuba trip."
Although Rother's article raised additional questions about Hangafarin, just as its headline promised, it did little to shine any light on the Cuba controversy. The only mention of Procopio and American Trading Services came in the context of back-story, and the only link to Cuba it revealed indicated that Hangafarin had vacationed there with Roque de la Fuente II, who also owned the downtown condo where Hangafarin lives rent-free. A prominent developer, de la Fuente won $94.3 million after he sued the city for scuttling a planned business park.
But that was enough for Kittle and the U-T editorial board. On Wednesday-with no proof of any conflict of interest and Stern still investigating-it delivered the coup de grace calling for Hangafarin's resignation.
Kittle's editorial cited Hangafarin's admission about vacations in Cuba as justification, noting that, "if true, his tourist travels were a glaring breach of federal law...."
"If Mr. Hanagafarin wanted a fair shake, he should have returned my phone calls," Kittle told CityBeat, noting that he made several efforts to reach Hangafarin.
Hangafarin says he refused to discuss previous Cuba trips with Kittle, fearing the details would be misinterpreted and provide the U-T with additional ammo.
But the U-T already had everything it needed, and the pressure from the editorial board was all Mayor Murphy could handle. Although he had previously pledged to stand by his appointee until Stern finished his investigation, Murphy crumbled, and, later that afternoon, his chief of staff made the call to Hangafarin.
Now, more than a week after he resigned, Hangafarin says he's still confused and in shock over what he calls "personal attacks" and is insistent that Stern's investigation continue.
Hall says it will and expects a final report within the next few days. "Frankly I feel that the port still has an obligation to get at the truth," says Hall. "I think if it comes out favorable to him, then it's a good opportunity to clear his name... and if it doesn't, then he's indicated that he's prepared to live with the consequences."
"My papers are in order," says Hangafarin. "I have nothing to hide."