by Don Bauder and Matt Potter / The Reader / January 28, 2009
On February 25 of last year, professional skydiver Alan (Buzz) Fink and his wife Kristina, who are not residents of San Diego, gave a total of $640 to Jan Goldsmith in his run for city attorney. On July 23, Fink, president of Jamul’s Skydive San Diego, gave Goldsmith another $320.
Goldsmith won the election, and on January 8 he fired deputy city attorney John Serrano, who worked on real estate property. He is one of nine deputy city attorneys who have been fired by Goldsmith. Serrano is an experienced government lawyer, having served as a deputy city attorney in Los Angeles and assistant city attorney in Escondido, among many things.
But despite his undisputed professional credentials, Serrano was on a list of lawyers in the city attorney’s office that Mayor Jerry Sanders told the pliant Goldsmith to fire. The city attorney’s office denies that such a list exists, but we have interviewed many people who know about it, including one who was in a meeting in which a Goldsmith aide alluded to it. The mayor’s office would not comment.
Fifteen months ago, Serrano was asked to approve a sublease of space on prime City land at Brown Field. He noted that Juan Escalante, a member of the City of San Diego Airports Advisory Committee, had a very favorable lease at Brown and wanted to retire and transfer it to two members of the Airports Advisory Committee, one of whom was Fink. But Serrano found out that when Escalante got the deal in 1998, he had promised to make major changes – “build hangars, put in showers for the pilots, put in a gate, those kinds of things,” says Serrano. He checked satellite images and found those improvements had not been made.
He went to Mike Tussey, deputy director of airports. “He said, ‘Don’t worry. Just approve the sublease. These are good people. They are on the Airports Advisory Committee.’ I said when someone promises to do $700,000 of public improvements and doesn’t do them, it’s like a theft. Fink sent a letter to the mayor, city attorney, council members that I was not being objective and interfering with a good deal.” Serrano went to the council in closed session and explained the situation; in December of 2007, it authorized that the tenant be evicted. But Tussey refused to sign the notice of termination of tenancy for more than a year. “Tussey was backed up by the mayor on this thing.”
After Goldsmith got into office, Serrano was told to see David Jarrell, deputy chief operating officer for public works. Serrano then ran into Phil Rath, the mayor’s policy adviser. “As we were walking toward the meeting room, he said, ‘Are you still working with the city attorney’s office?’ That was the first clue.” Serrano explained the Brown Field situation to Rath, Tussey, and Jarrell. He also got to Goldsmith. “He said we had to do whatever the mayor’s office wanted to do. I was not to substitute my personal judgment for anything the mayor wanted to do, as long as it was legal. We are to serve our client; if our client has a need, give the client the benefit of the doubt.”
This cavalier attitude toward ethical caution was coming not long after the City had been sharply criticized by consultants and regulators for hiding critical information from bond documents and generally doing exactly what Goldsmith was instructing Serrano to do. Serrano doesn’t say it, but Goldsmith was telling him to follow the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law, for the mayor’s friends. As intelligent citizens know, Goldsmith is a toady for the mayor, who is in turn a toady for the downtown establishment, particularly real estate developers. “Goldsmith is going to let developers run the city,” says still another deputy city attorney who was fired.
Escalante won’t talk. “I’m talking with the City on it,” he says.
Fink says he is no longer in the deal. “Originally I had looked toward doing something with Juan. The City said Juan Escalante was in default on the lease. It’s not true. Serrano effectively screwed over Escalante,” asserts Fink. “I sent a letter to the city attorney’s office requesting an investigation of Serrano. I got nothing.” Fink says, “Mike Tussey was in favor of doing something for Mr. Escalante,” who purportedly had been told by an airport official that he didn’t have to make the improvements until the City undergrounded the utilities there. Tussey deferred comment to a mayoral public relations person, who did not respond to a call. Fink claims he gave money to Goldsmith because he was unhappy that Aguirre had not replied to his letters. Serrano was shortly fired and replaced by a former Casey Gwinn employee, Debra Bevier, who had been fired by Goldsmith’s predecessor, Mike Aguirre, for permitting allegedly questionable airport contracts to go forward. She sued Aguirre for alleged threatening behavior but dropped the suit. She did not return a phone call for comment.
Goldsmith has hired back seven attorneys from the disastrous Gwinn years, during which the City was pathetically outlawyered in the Chargers and Padres contracts, left out key negative information from bond prospectuses, and generally served to feather the nest of the establishment. The other six rehired from the Gwinn years are Mary Jo Lanzafame, Joan Dawson, Deborah Berger, David Miller (who Aguirre believed had let Sunroad go forward with its law-defying construction project), Elisa Cusato, and William (Wink) Donnell, who admitted that he had secretly intercepted a letter before it reached Aguirre.
Lanzafame recently advised her fellow attorneys to pay attention to “form and substance – but only a little bit of substance,” according to several sources, including Kathryn Burton, former assistant city attorney who ran the administrative side of the office under Aguirre. Cusato, Bevier, and Donnell and his wife all contributed significant sums to Goldsmith’s campaign.
The city attorney’s office claims that the firings are a result of cost cutting. But this hardly makes sense when the office is busily hiring back Gwinn people.
Serrano believes that a second matter he handled contributed to his firing. He was in charge of the case in which the City successfully sued energy firm Kinder Morgan over the oil plume underneath Qualcomm Stadium property. “This has been to the 9th Circuit [Court of Appeals] and we won. The court has approved our pleadings,” says Serrano. He was in a settlement conference with Kinder Morgan’s law firm. “One of those lawyers laughingly told me, ‘We will see if you still have a job once Goldsmith is in.’ ” Those lawyers might have been tipped off to the coming dismissal. Many San Diegans suspect Sanders still wants to make a gift to the Chargers for a new stadium at the Qualcomm site, despite the City’s horrific financial condition. Anybody making a fat subsidy difficult could wind up on the guillotine list.
Another deputy city attorney who was on the mayor’s hit list was Michael Calabrese, who worked in resource management and conservation and who also was fired once Goldsmith got in. Andrew Jones, a former member of Aguirre’s staff who campaigned for Goldsmith and was awarded with a position as key aide, told Calabrese about the mayor’s list. “It was very directly acknowledged to us that a list did exist, and I was told by several people that I was on it,” says Calabrese. Like Serrano, Calabrese got in trouble because he was trying to steer the City out of ethical problems. He had raised questions over the Regents Road bridge over Rose Canyon. He had said that members of the parking board in La Jolla should file financial disclosure forms, a decision that the California Fair Political Practices Commission affirmed.
But the action that probably put him on the mayor’s assassination list was his insistence that a contract awarded to a consulting firm as part of Sanders’s sacrosanct managed-competition program should go to the council for approval. “That may have gotten me in the doghouse,” he says.
Kimberly Urie is a longtime expert in complex white-collar crime cases. She was hired by Aguirre, who wanted to set up sophisticated fraud-sleuthing systems similar to those in Los Angeles and San Francisco. After Goldsmith came in, Urie got fired. “Jan Goldsmith intends that the criminal division scale back to handling only the simpler, traditional crimes such as DUIs, which of course are important, shoplifting, and minor drug possession,” says Urie. “Apparently Goldsmith is not interested in investigating or prosecuting more complex offenses such as violations of the political reform act by appointed and elected officials or instances of government procurement fraud – say, where contract specs are purposely written so that only one vendor can win the competitive bidding. Handling complex cases does cost more than doing only the simpler cases, but residents need to realize that the abuses resulting from violations of trust by those in power are ultimately much more expensive.”
But the San Diego establishment is not concerned about violations of trust, particularly since that establishment is responsible for so many of the violations. It does not want white-collar-crime enforcement in a city that is known nationwide as a haven for political corruption, Ponzi schemes, real estate swindles, up-front loan fee scams, affinity frauds, phony accounting by public companies, money laundering, and other fleece jobs.
Some of the top people in the office were shooed out by other methods. Consider Chris Morris, head of the criminal division, and Mia Severson, head of the civil division. “Goldsmith reached out to me during the campaign, but no direct communications were ever made,” says Morris. “After he got elected he called me down for an interview. He made it sound like he was going to keep me around. But I got word through an intermediary that he wasn’t going to keep me around. I resigned.” Severson was demoted. She resigned instead and is now partner in a law firm with Aguirre and Morris.
Don McGrath was a key Aguirre aide. One of those who worked for McGrath was Andrew Jones, now Goldsmith’s aide-de-camp. Goldsmith “never talked with me,” says McGrath. “He sends Andrew Jones up, and Andrew says, ‘You are a campaign promise.’ I was one year away from a city pension and brought $22 million into the city coffers” by handling monetary settlements with accounting firms, pension consultants, insurance companies, and other service providers the City had sued. So McGrath went to Aguirre, who eliminated McGrath’s position so he wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity.
Kathryn Burton, former assistant city attorney, also left before Goldsmith could swing the ax. “The deputy city attorneys were fired because they refused to be yes-men,” she says. “Those that were fired were the best public interest lawyers in the office.”
And that goes to the heart of it: the fired lawyers were working in the public interest. Goldsmith and Sanders are working for private interests.