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The Testimony of Thomas Warwick


TOM WARWICK JR.—of Grimes & Warwick—is a white-collar guy with blue-collar roots. The criminal defense attorney grew up in a small New Jersey town between Trenton and Princeton and came of age during America’s last contentious war. He “had a cup of coffee with the National Guard—and four months active duty—at Fort Knox, Kentucky,” and ended up on a simulation team that helped prepare fellow infantrymen for Vietnam combat. Grimes carries a mental list of buddies who went overseas and never returned.

“I have a great deal of respect for the people who went over there and did their duty and either passed away or survived but were impacted by it,” he says, while expressing his gratitude for the contemporary sacrifices of U.S. servicemen in the Middle East.

In February, the celebrated attorney —his prominent clients have included former Port Commissioner David Malcolm, publisher David Copley and sportscaster Jim Lampley—took his son on a tour of East Coast Ivy League Schools. The trip was a mirror image of Warwick’s own westward educational voyage.

San Diego Magazine: Your father was an iron worker?

Tom Warwick: My father and his father before him were iron workers. When I got out of Boston College and applied for jobs, I was working as an iron worker and making good money. I had to take a pay cut to become an accountant. I’d been offered work on the World Trade Center, which would have paid a lot more money than I was making in iron working. Then I came out here and worked my way through law school as a tax specialist, and I had to take a pay cut again to become a lawyer.

SDM: Jumping straight to the controversial, San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre shakes things up. And given the political climate at City Hall, things possibly need some shaking up. At the same time, it seems his personality interferes with the effectiveness of his positions.

TW: I think the overwhelming majority of people who get elected to an office . . . they go in there with the intent to try to do good. And I think Mike is attempting to do things he thinks are productive for this community. Unfortunately, that may be a minority position—that these are productive for the community. You can’t fault him for trying, but you also have to look at the result—and it seems to have polarized the community more than bringing it together. I would hope Mike’s energy would stream in a fashion that would be more productive than it has been to date.

SDM: If you’re working with a system that could be tainted or corrupted, do you want to meld nicely with it?

TW: I’m not saying meld nicely. Everybody has sensitivity to the issues that are in front of us. How do you, in some way, move forward? The idea of Mike going in and filing all those lawsuits and challenging everybody, shaking everything up . . . is maybe what is needed. Obviously, Mike feels that’s the most productive way to sensitize everybody. It’s like the William Kunstlers, the defense attorneys, the Charles Garys who are so abrasive it causes everybody to become antagonistic. Then, after you’ve been exposed to that for a period of time, you start to realize that a lot of what they’re doing and saying is right, even though it might be expressed in a very difficult pabulum to ingest. There are a lot of good examples where you need friction—where it’s got to start chafing before you start changing the way you do things.

SDM: We’ll have to wait till he’s done and gone before we know his legacy.

TW: The problem is that in this particular community, his approval ratings are very high from a lot of the people. So that’s inspiring him to continue to do this, and I think he realizes that. An awful lot of the electorate thinks that’s good. An awful lot of the people who are trying to govern, and trying to make sense of these problems, think it’s counterproductive. That tension . . . hopefully it will lead to something good.

SDM: Your opinion of the Arellano- Felix case . . .

TW: I happened to be in court one day when they were arguing part of that case, because I had another case in front of Judge Burns.

SDM: There’s the potential to try Francisco Javier Arellano-Felix, seeking the death penalty [Mexico doesn’t have the death penalty, and its constitution prohibits the extradition of the accused to countries where defendants could face it].

TW: One of the concerns I’ve heard privately is that we want to be able to continue to extradite these people, and we don’t want to have the Mexican authorities feel that our actions are so harsh they’re going to stop extraditing them.

SDM:Mexico and the United States have an at-times brittle political relationship; one wonders what would happen if the United States were to break an extradition agreement.

TW: The question’s going to be resolved at the State Department level, not at the U.S. attorney level. It’s got to go to [Alberto] Gonzales, and he has to make a decision as to where he’s going to go—and I’m sure that is going to be a political as well as a prosecution decision . . . The interesting thing that comes about from all of this is: Do they really need to go there? If you were to place these guys in custody for 30 years, versus not getting them [at all], I think the government would make the choice “We’ll take the 30 years.”

SDM: Arellano-Felix, whose family is rumored to be worth many millions of dollars, has not been allowed to hire an attorney.

TW: The Drug Kingpin Act is basically a law that provides that the president of the United States, or some of his designates, can place your name on a list—and if your name is on that list, every person in the United States is precluded from doing business with you. So say somebody was arrested and they wanted to hire an attorney in the United States; you literally have to apply for a permit from the federal government to handle the case. Nobody can represent these people if they’re on the list, and I’m guessing that if anybody’s name is on the list, it’s some of the people in the alleged Arellano-Felix organization. Number two, if somebody were to attempt to pay you, you’d have to probably demonstrate to the federal government that the source of the funds was not a result of illegal activities, which is a problem in a lot of cases. In this case, it would be an almost insurmountable burden, unless somebody came in and said, “I’m Cardinal So-and-So, and I’m giving this money out of my own personal assets.” You’d have to show that it was clean money.

SDM:On to the other side of the law: What’s your perspective on the events surrounding the departure of U.S. Attorney Carol Lamb?

TW: My understanding is that when you are appointed United States attorney, it’s for a four-year term. Traditionally, it’s been for the duration of the [current] presidency. I think Carol fully expected that would be her term. But at the end of the four years, she wasn’t renewed. I have no idea why this is all happening, or why it occurred, or what the reasoning is behind it. And I don’t know that any of us will ever know why this action was taken. It would be real speculation for me to even give an opinion. But I think it’s incredibly sad for Carol to be twisting in the wind like this. It’s going to impact the rest of her life. She left being a Superior Court judge in order to take this position. She went over based on a lot of searching to try to find somebody to do this job, and she was a former U.S. attorney who agreed to come in and do it. I wish her well, and I hope she has a great life after this.

SDM:Politics as usual?

TW:Well, it could be “Your four years are up, and we want to put somebody else in there.”

SDM:Weren’t there were several other U.S. attorneys across the nation in her position?

TW: My understanding is there are six or seven people who had essentially the same four-year term and are moving on. It’s healthy to have debate; it’s terribly unhealthy to have all this innuendo without resolution for Carol. I think it’s a real disservice to her.

SDM:The last word: About your more celebrated clientele . . .

TW: I have a philosophy about that: I try to cause my better-known cases as little celebrity and public attention as possible. I’ll have to politely decline.

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