Kim Urie, the last person to serve as director of San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre's Public Integrity Unit, spent last week boxing her stuff and moving to her new digs down on the sixth floor of 1200 Third Ave., joining her new colleagues, prosecutors of general crime. Aguirre shuttered the corruption-fighting shop at the end of June with hardly a public peep. Quite a contrast from the thunderous applause he received when he announced the resurrection of the team on his inauguration day in 2004, before 700 people in a packed Golden Hall.
The team wasted little time in ferreting out the kind of low-level corruption that gums up the machinery of city government but cannot command the attention of the District Attorney or the FBI. In 2005, then-Deputy City Attorney Patrick O'Toole led the prosecution of Tommy Hightower, City Councilmember Tony Young's chief of staff. Hightower solicited loans from two prominent members of the District 4 community (Young fired Hightower when he learned of his behavior). Hightower copped to a pair of misdemeanors that included three years' probation.
In 2006, after Urie took over, she and an investigator looked into possible manipulation of the pension system by the city's fire department. The original investigation never bore fruit, but turning over that rock exposed other crimes. Urie filed a complaint against firefighter Doug O'Neal, who spray-painted the word 'Rat' on a fire captain's helmet while he was talking to investigators. The investigation also revealed instances of alleged favoritism within the department. One source told CityBeat that a case is ongoing against another firefighter for allegedly disobeying orders and then physically assaulting the fire captain who delivered those orders. His punishment by the department was one forced vacation day. Now, because no one was injured, he's facing a misdemeanor battery charge.
More often, the unit enforced ethical violations that didn't merit a criminal complaint. Urie improved compliance with the city's ethics laws by sending letters asking bureaucrats to modify procedures and questionable behavior. In another outgrowth of the firefighter investigation, Urie discovered the department was receiving outside pressure to write requests for equipment in a way that only one vendor could fill them. Urie worked with the city's Contracting and Purchasing Department to remove the pressure, and a new vendor was selected.
But despite all the hard work, Aguirre announced the closure on June 29.
'We had to shut it down because of the budget,' he told CityBeat. Some 14 positions were cut from the city attorney's budget during negotiations, a move Aguirre called 'strictly retaliational' for his investigation into Sunroad Enterprises, though members of the City Council and the mayor said at the time they merely asked the city attorney to cut back just like all the other city departments.
Urie worries that the loss of a dedicated unit will result in a loss of expertise. It took her months to get up to speed on San Diego's ethics code.
'White-collar crime is not the way it used to be. You have to have more sophisticated techniques if you want to have more sophisticated enforcement,' Urie said.
But with Aguirre pulling back to a complaint-driven system, rather than one based on investigation, the District Attorney's Office will be primarily responsible for enforcement of public-integrity laws.
'In some ways, that's better. We can compel testimony and documents, and [the city attorney] can't,' said O'Toole, now the head of the DA's public-integrity unit.
The chiefs of the two remaining ethics enforcers at the municipal level mostly regret the reduction of people and money that comes with the closing of a dedicated public-integrity unit. The mayor's Office of Ethics and Integrity (OEI) provides ethics advice to city departments, as well as training, outreach and the maintenance of an ethics hotline.
'It's some loss, to the extent that the resources devoted to this kind of effort have diminished,' said OEI chief Jo Anne SawyerKnoll. 'Certain kinds of complaints that come their way may not be dealt with, or they have to deal with them in less of a timely way.'
The other agency responsible for government ethics, the Ethics Commission, monitors elections and the behavior of elected officials and their immediate staffs.
'When it comes to governmental ethics in the city of San Diego,' said Ethics Commission Director Stacey Fulhorst, 'the more agencies investigating and enforcing the laws the better.'