Mike Aguirre: Raging Bull
LAST DECEMBER, a month before I retired as a district attorney investigator, Rupert Linley, the criminal division chief for the new city attorney, asked me to join Michael Aguirre’s office. Aguirre wanted to resurrect the Public Integrity Unit that had been allowed to wither and die by the previous city attorney. I knew Aguirre when he ran against Paul Pfingst for district attorney in 2002. Despite Aguirre’s reputation as a loose cannon, I found him to be fun, energetic and bold. Mayor Dick Murphy had said the city didn’t need a Public Integrity Unit because it already had an Ethics Commission.
Aguirre believed the commission was a group of nice people who sat around a table. To lead the unit, he wanted a hard-ass with a shaved head who wasn’t afraid to get in someone’s face if necessary. I started February 7.
Michael Jules Aguirre once told a New York Times reporter, “My ability to annoy people is almost unlimited.”
Although he appears to lack many selfevaluation skills, Aguirre was on target there. He bolted out of the starting blocks with his annoyance level in top form. He asked Chief of Police William Landsdowne for police protection. Mayor Murphy had officers at his beck and call, and Murphy’s capacity to annoy was much lower than Aguirre’s. Landsdowne’s reply was a succinct “No.”
Because I am licensed to carry a firearm, I was also tapped to do “executive protection” work for Aguirre. It sounded like fun to me.
My arrival was welcomed with some trepidation among city attorney staffers. Half had supported Mike’s election opponent, Leslie Devaney. They wondered what I was doing on their floor when all the other criminal investigators were on the fifth floor. Did I come to spy on them? When one attorney saw me without my coat, her eyes widened and she said, “Oh, you wear a gun.”
Stone-faced, I said, “And I’m not afraid to use it.” She hurried away.
I was stationed about 15 feet from Aguirre’s office. There is no security screening in the Civic Center Plaza, and they wanted me near in case some malcontent compromised the numbered entry system.
Interviewers often ask a subject to use one word to describe someone. For Mike, the word is “energy.” Mike is full of it. He is full of the other stuff too, but Mike is full of energy.
When he walks in a room, his energy takes over. He’s a bullshitter, but he also has an unmistakable air of sincerity. It might sound incongruous to call someone “sincere” and “bullshitter” in the same sentence, but it’s true. When Mike is bullshitting, he’s doing it to be entertaining, and everyone knows what he is doing.
Mike’s style can be termed “rude,” because he has a bad habit of asking a question, then interrupting the person before the answer is complete. Mike thinks he knows where the answer is going and doesn’t want to waste valuable time listening to the whole thing.
As part of my “security detail,” I was told to meet Mike each morning at the parking ramp when he arrived, around 8:05 a.m. And so, at 7:50 a.m. daily, I positioned myself at a strategic location affording a view of his parking spot. At 8:40, I would return to the office, alone. In three weeks, Aguirre arrived when he was supposed to only once. Since Aguirre’s own bodyguard couldn’t monitor his activities, an assassin would have equal trouble finding him. Then something happened.
Maria Velasquez, the city attorney’s media honcho, said Gene Cubbison, an NBC 7/39 TV reporter, had heard Aguirre had hired a full-time bodyguard at city expense. All the bodyguard did was sit around all day and read the newspaper, sucking up city funds. Velasquez smelled a hit piece coming.
Cubbison’s source was partly correct. Since I had no computer, phone or supplies the first week I was there, I would often read the several news publications at the office. What did they want me to do, go out and write parking tickets?
Velasquez, more scolding than questioning, asked if I had told anyone of my bodyguard duties. She is a former TV reporter, impatient with those she regards as beneath her—mainly everyone. Two days later, she said Cubbison was still pressing her for a story about the bodyguard.
The next day, when I went out to my post, a cameraman was already there. His head was down, and he was fooling with his equipment. I ducked away before he noticed me. As usual, Aguirre wasn’t on time, and the newshound went away emptyhanded.
I accompanied Mike to some nighttime community meetings and daytime luncheons. They were all “preach to the choir” affairs. The public loved him. He knows how to work a crowd. If someone in a group takes him on during the questionand- answer session, he will find that person after the speech and engage in sincere conversation. He does it in a friendly way, winning over many people with the tactic. The guy is smart.
Patrick O’Toole, the attorney assigned to the Public Integrity Unit, with a wealth of experience prosecuting corruption cases, was retired from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He and I decided to talk to the Ethics Commission and the District Attorney’s Special Operations Units to introduce ourselves and sow the seeds of cooperation.
Our meeting with the Ethics Commission executive director and the investigator went great. We told them we didn’t want to step on their toes, or get confidential information. We let them know we were here and wanted to do whatever we could to work together. Executive director Stacey Fulhorst was agreeable, and it looked like we might have a good relationship. That lasted one day, until Mike Aguirre spoke to Fulhorst by himself and argued with her about the budget and where money was coming and going. Oh well, we tried.
Our meeting with the D.A.’s staff surprised me. Julie Korsmeyer was a friend and former colleague. The atmosphere was decidedly cool when Pat and I met with her. Julie told us we could have the misdemeanor corruption cases and civil law violations, and they would handle the rest. Aguirre and Bonnie Dumanis, friends when both ran against Paul Pfingst, were now quietly snarling at one another. This deteriorating relationship seeped over to influence Korsmeyer’s reaction during our meeting; she was all business. When I worked at the D.A.’s office, she had always laughed at my jokes and cynical comments. The few I cracked at this meeting were met with a strained smile.
AGUIRRE WAS ON THE FRONT PAGE, above the fold, every day. He had something to say about everything—the pension board, the Mount Soledad Cross, the city council and the city manager. In a move from out of nowhere, the council hired former D.A. Pfingst to advise them about whether or not they should sue Aguirre about some matter.
Aguirre responded in typical fashion: He went ballistic. Pfingst was now doing medical malpractice defense law. “What does he know about civic law?” Aguirre bellowed. He called a meeting to decide how to respond to Pfingst’s hiring. Much yelling came from the meeting, most of it from Mike. He wanted to focus on Pfingst’s brush with the law in New York more than 20 years before. While still a deputy district attorney, Pfingst was either fired or resigned, for smoking and supplying coworkers with marijuana.
Some of Aguirre’s advisers wanted to focus on the fact that Pfingst was so obnoxious that he alienated 70 percent of his attorneys by being abrasive, rude and dishonest in dealing with them, or that he played favorites with his employees. No one cared that Pfingst smoked or supplied marijuana more than 20 years ago. Some wanted Aguirre to ignore the marijuana and focus on Pfingst’s arrogance and lack of experience in civic law.
In the end, the March 2 press release represented a slight compromise between Aguirre and his staff. The text read: “Paul Pfingst, who was removed from office for unethical behavior by San Diego voters, and was caught using drugs while a New York prosecutor, is hardly suitable to provide independent and reliable advice to the mayor and city council.” The release itself was moot as Pfingst didn’t provide any action the public or press was aware of. He collected his $10,000 fee and moved on.
Pat O’Toole and I worked our first corruption case in mid-March. Councilman Tony Young phoned Mike on a Saturday telling him he had to fire his chief of staff for soliciting loans from people who had business before the city. Aguirre assured Young there would be an investigation, and that Young should get his own legal counsel. Say what? People who are accused of doing something wrong usually get legal counsel. Young made a proper, timely notification of the loan solicitations.
In an investigation, we start off by interviewing the reporting party—in this case, Tony Young. But now we couldn’t interview him because he had obtained a lawyer—as Aguirre had advised —and the lawyer wasn’t immediately available. We did two ill-timed, lousy interviews with the people who were approached for loans. Because we didn’t have the full story from Young, we had to go back and interview each of them a second time. Why? Because Mike Aguirre told Tony Young to get legal counsel.
Pat O’Toole and I had two loud, contentious meetings with Aguirre. He wanted us to construct the gallows, and then have the investigation. Mike wanted Young’s aide charged with bribery. He said the intent was implied. We disagreed vehemently. Aguirre called us “naive.” As a working street cop for more than 34 years, I have been called just about everything except “naive.” If you didn’t agree with Mike you were either stupid, corrupt or naive.
We put a case together, and the chief of staff pleaded guilty to a municipal code violation and another charge of not reporting personal loans on a financial disclosure form required by the city, both appropriate for what he had done.
On another occasion, two representatives from the building industry had an audience with Mike to complain about another builder not complying with employment laws. After listening to their story, Mike directed the deputy city attorney at the meeting to draw up the criminal complaint and for me to start the investigation. It doesn’t work that way. Construction people complain about each other worse than people seeking marital dissolutions. We had heard one side of the story. We might draw up a complaint after an investigation, but certainly not on the word of one half of the equation.
MIKE ERUPTED AGAIN, on April 5, when told D.A. Dumanis was giving a presentation to the city council about her office taking over misdemeanor prosecutions. The Ralph M. Brown Act requires that public meetings be held in public, and that items to be discussed must be on the agenda 72 hours before the meeting.
Aguirre lashed out at the “political ambush” attempted by Dumanis. Sheriff Bill Kolender and Chief Landsdowne were with Dumanis during the presentation. Their presence represented a “conspiracy” to Mike, and was certainly suspicious to others. He had a fiery debate with Deputy City Attorney Les Girard about whether or not Dumanis’ council appearance constituted a Brown Act violation. Then he either did, or did not, fire Girard. That was on Tuesday.
The city manager, sitting next to Girard, said he heard Aguirre fire Les. Girard was gone from the office until Friday, when he sent office-wide e-mail saying he was on the job. Any disagreement between Mike and him was personal, and it was resolved, the message said.
Weeks before, Girard and Aguirre had an exchange in the hallway with Girard saying, “You can’t talk to me like that, Mike.
You ask me a question, and then you don’t let me finish.”
Aguirre showed little concern. “That’s just the way I am,” he said, as if that validated his behavior.
Mike’s previous law firm employed fewer than a half-dozen people. The private sector allows hiring and firing at will, with little justification. City work is different. Several hundred people work for Mike, most under civil service protection. The attorneys, however, are “at will” employees, which would account for some nervousness, given Aguirre’s volatile personality.
One Friday, at an after-work function, an employee showed up who had taken the day off to go fishing and have a few beers. He became aggressive with Mike about what might happen to the pension program.
The following Monday, Aguirre was fuming. He wanted the employee fired immediately. When it was pointed out the guy had civil service protection, Mike bellowed that he wanted the man transferred. Someone tipped off the guy, and he apologized that afternoon. Mike said, “Aw, that’s okay. How’re things going, anyway?” So, if Aguirre fires anyone, the person should stick around to see if Mike forgives or forgets, something he does rapidly.
THE VOTING PUBLIC generally loves Mike. They should. He says things that need say ing, and does things that need doing. He shakes up people who need shaking. And sometimes he gets blamed for things he didn’t do. When Time magazine named Mayor Dick Murphy one of the three worst mayors in the country, he blamed Aguirre for influencing the publication. This is ridiculous. Mike did enjoy that bit of notoriety, however. The next time Mike saw me he said, “Don’t f*** with me or I’ll put you in Time magazine.”
WHEN AGUIRRE TOOK OFFICE, he proudly announced Rupert Linley would be the chief of the criminal division. Linley was a deputy D.A. for 33 years, and knew everything about criminal law. He was a team leader, knowledgeable in civil service law, and, more important, he knows how to treat people. Linley brought Andrea Freshwater, a 15-year prosecutor from the D.A., to be his second-in-command.
The attorneys, investigators and clerical staff in the criminal division loved Linley and Freshwater. Under Casey Gwinn, the criminal side believed they played second fiddle to the civil division. When Bonnie Dumanis dropped the bomb about taking over the misdemeanor prosecutions, Linley mobilized his division chiefs to give a Power- Point presentation at a community forum. Even to outsiders, the presentation was impressive. The community prosecutors and those in code enforcement are committed people who do a terrific job.
The best parts of the presentation were the three videotaped statements of people praising the city attorney’s criminal division and saying the misdemeanor prosecutions should stay where they were. The three speakers were Mayor Dick Murphy and Councilmembers Toni Atkins and Jim Madaffer. The statements were taped 11 months before. The only difference was that Casey Gwinn was the city attorney then, and not Mike Aguirre.
AS SMART AS HE IS, Mike doesn’t grasp some things. His emotional responses resemble those of a child. For example, a deputy city attorney had a case where the opposing attorney was a former colleague. Mike took the case away from the attorney because of this sole fact. That is ridiculous. Attorneys wage raging battles in the courtroom, going after each other with the tenacity of pit bulls and the ferocity of wolverines. At the end of the case, they might go golfing, or out for drinks. The attorneys love the fight. They hate to lose but almost never hate the opposition.
To believe one of his own attorneys might “pull his punches” just because the opponent is a former colleague is an insult.
ONE DAY MIKE BURST INTO THE OFFICE at 11:50 a.m. after leaving a closed council session. “Get everybody in here,” he said. The idiocy of calling a meeting at that hour isn’t obvious to Mike. Few crises are so important they can’t wait until after the lunch hour. Many of the staff conducts business over lunch with other people. Mike treated every tiff with City Hall as if it were a crime in progress. This “emergency” proved to be nothing.
The San Diego Union-Tribune carried articles personally negative to Mike on May 14 and 15. Former and present disgruntled employees were starting to speak out about Aguirre’s questionable management style.
Robert J. Caldwell of the paper’s Insight section wrote an article headlined “Aguirre: leader or bully?” It was a fastball, right down the middle, knee high. Caldwell nailed it, right down to the fact that Mike Aguirre doesn’t think there’s a problem. Aguirre said in the interview, “. . . the office is in great shape.” Mike said his effort so far was a “management miracle.”
I happen to like Mike Aguirre. He’s a genuine person, not a phony. He likes to have fun. He doesn’t mind making fun of himself. When a cartoonist depicted him as an overweight Batman, Aguirre joked that he was going to start an investigation to see who correctly described his physique to the cartoonist.
However, whenever there is a disagreement, Aguirre has the attitude that the rest of the world is wrong and he is right. In meetings, when someone brings up a dissenting view, Mike will say, “No, no, no, no, no, no. I don’t wanna hear it.”
If you refuse to hear something, you do so at your peril. Mike says he doesn’t want to be surrounded by “yes” men, but he doesn’t like to be disagreed with, either.
Rupert Linley, beckoned out of retirement by Aguirre, initially had a good relationship with him. Linley came over for the challenge and the job satisfaction of improving an office where he could make a difference.
Arguments came and went over issues. Aguirre told me, “Rupe and I are like brothers. We fight, but we love each other.” Signs appeared that the relationship was weakening, however.
Mike scheduled a retreat at the end of April for his advisers. Normally, a retreat is a good idea. People get refreshers on how to communicate better and be more effective. Reports came back that Mike ridiculed some of his senior staff in front of everyone at the retreat. That’s not good.
Coaches don’t rebuke their assistant coaches in front of the team.
Those in attendance didn’t think any less of those ridiculed. Rather, they thought, “If he treats his top people like that, imagine how he’ll treat me.” Mike showed no leadership that day. The sad part is, he thought he did.
IN MID-MAY, LINLEY TOLD ME his clashes with Mike were becoming more frequent and volatile. He feared getting fired. I reassured him. “No matter what Mike is, he sees your value,” I said. “You disagree with him, which he doesn’t like, but he knows you’re often right. The boat may tilt, but you keep it on course.”
On May 26, Mike and Rupert were being driven back to the office after a meeting. The argument that day became so heated that Rupert ordered the driver to pull over on the freeway. He walked back to the office. The next day was business as usual for Mike, who acted like nothing had happened.
When Rupe told of the blowup, her anxiety increased. Deputy city attorneys have no civil service protection. Andrea had young children, and she needed security, or at least a boss who was stable. Andrea quietly regained her former job at the D.A.’s office and submitted her resignation to Mike on May 31.
At that time, the D.A.’s attempt to take over misdemeanor prosecutions was still ongoing. For some reason, known only to him, Aguirre believed Rupert was undermining his efforts to keep the prosecutions. That is flabbergasting to anyone who knows anything about the situation. Rupert wrote the proposal to the city manager to keep the cases with the city attorney, for God’s sake.
Rupert’s farewell message to the troops was classy. “Mr. Aguirre has asked that I leave the City Attorney’s Office. Thank you all for your kindness during the last six months. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.” Rupe’s last act was to tape a copy of the “Prosecutor’s Code of Ethics” to his vacant office door. Someone took it down within hours.
Mike saw me shortly after he fired Rupert. He said that no matter what was happening on the other floors, I was still okay. Not in my book I wasn’t. I submitted my resignation June 2, effective June 17. I had two cases that were almost ready for criminal complaints.
Mike didn’t take my resignation memo in stride. When I saw him in the hallway he gave me a blank look and a nod, whereas before he would feign throwing a punch, or have a wisecrack for me.
Then the chief investigator told me that Aguirre wanted me to telecommute to finish the cases. I had a search warrant to write, and I didn’t have that kind of template on my home computer. I said I wasn’t telecommuting. I was either staying and finishing, or quitting now. He said I could stay.
The next day, the chief told me Mike wanted me off the floor. They were going to have my computer and phone moved to the seventh floor. For two weeks? Ridiculous. I did as much as I could on the cases, packed my stuff, completed my exit paperwork, shook the dust from my feet and left. .
Tom Basinski worked for the Chula Vista Police Department for 17 years, the district attorney for 17 years and the city attorney for 17 weeks.