The San Diego Union-Tribune raised some legitimately troubling issues when it reported last week that City Attorney Mike Aguirre had hired his former campaign treasurer to be an expert witness on the city's massive pension lawsuit. The witness, Steven Gabrielson, had been paid $128,000 but had produced little work, had never testified in court and had said in a deposition that he had little experience with public pensions. The piece seemed damning. But both Aguirre and Gabrielson ignored multiple calls from the piece's author, Alex Roth.
When the two men spoke (in separate interviews) to CityBeat, the scandal suddenly seemed a lot less scandalous. Gabrielson, it turns out, has been an expert witness in hundreds of financial fraud cases, many of which involve pensions. While he has not worked with public pensions specifically, Aguirre brought him in as a forensic accountant.“I was looking, among other things, for discrepancies between documents,” Gabrielson told CityBeat. “There really is no substantial difference at all between public and private [pensions] in this regard.”
Gabrielson said he had to spend weeks reading through transcripts of pension board and City Council meetings, a decade's worth of the city's financial statements and reams of other documents. He met with Aguirre and his staff throughout the summer of 2006. And although he didn't testify at trial, he was on standby, wearing a suit, papers in hand, for five days while Aguirre argued before the judge who eventually dismissed the case.
The two men have known each other since they teamed up to win a record-setting judgment against the privately run First Pension in Orange County. Gabrielson said that after the victory, he and Aguirre saw each other only three times, each time for convention seminars or panels, the last in 2001. In 2002 and 2004 Gabrielson was treasurer for Aguirre's City Attorney campaigns, but he said he worked less than two hours on both combined, and had no other contact with Aguirre of any sort beyond that.
“I guess I'm not very upset about this,” said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit that studies government ethics. “Aguirre is hiring someone he knows. It's hard to say you can't hire someone you know.”
Stern thinks it was Aguirre's refusal to talk to Roth that backfired on him.
“It was his own fault,” Stern said of Aguirre. “It's really too bad that they didn't talk to the reporter. It probably would have been much less of a story.”