The Devil and Gary Aguirre
Spurred by a strong sense of justice and a desire for public service, Gary Aguirre has taken on the SEC and a devilish can of worms
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IN 2005, AT THE AGE OF 65—when most men are slipping into the placid stasis of retirement—Gary Aguirre was getting fired by the federal government. He raised a stink, and Congress got involved. Hearings were held, and two Republican senators formally chastised the highest levels of a top government agency over the incident. But don’t let theatrics fool you. Aguirre is a soft-spoken man with a lawyer’s deliberative sense and, above all, a common-sense notion of right and wrong—not the political maverick whose image might be conjured up by the family name.
If you mixed Gary up with his little brother Michael, the San Diego city attorney who moonlights as a lightning rod for controversy, you’d be off by about 90 degrees. Both men carry a fiery zeal to fight for justice, and both have an ingrained sense of duty to what used to be called the American Way (Gary, a graduate of UC Berkeley Law, once received a personal letter from Robert Kennedy after taking a public defender’s position). But the Aguirre brothers part ways in their delivery. The younger Aguirre has become known for inflammatory remarks and a sixth sense for finding the spotlight, while the elder became an inadvertent—and unenthusiastic, if not unwilling—whistleblower at the Securities & Exchange Commission three years ago.
But don’t be fooled by the low-key, avuncular demeanor either.
Gary Aguirre may not have been looking for a fight with Wall Street heavyweights—and the job he had may have been as banal as a shoeshine on Capitol Hill (he was a relatively green fraud investigator with the SEC)—but the man has lived a life that’s been anything but ordinary. Some people retire and take up bridge in their sixties. Aguirre went back to law school, graduated with honors and looked around for a position where he could do some good.
“I looked back on my career and found something missing,” he says. “I was missing the public service part. I felt that I just wasn’t done yet.”
The SEC position launched Aguirre’s second (arguably third) career. He’d made a name for himself in San Diego in the 1970s and ’80s as a trial lawyer. He first garnered public attention by helping secure a $3 million settlement for families of the victims of the 1978 midair crash of a Pacific Southwest Airlines flight over North Park. After that, in the 1980s, he pioneered in the field of construction-defect litigation—a dubious distinction.
For a man who got into law to make positive change in society—who took a thankless job as a public defender and labored as a farmworkers’ advocate—the connection with the class-action industry isn’t a completely comfortable one. Since Aguirre retired from it, in 1996, that line of law has become synonymous with ambulance chasing and settlements (sometimes frivolous) in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Aguirre says when he won his first landmark case, in 1982, homeowners had no voice and were regularly abused as a result of shoddy building practices.
At the time, that case was the largest settlement of its kind, and a lucrative 20-year career followed. Then in the 1990s, Aguirre says, he realized that though he’d changed the face of law in a small way and had made enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life, he didn’t “want to discuss the merits of window flashing ever again.” Divorced for years by that point and with four grown kids who were making their own names—his son Gary sang the hit remake of the song “Mad World” that became stuck in the heads of most of the English-speaking world in 2003—the elder Aguirre retired as a trial lawyer and traveled. Russia was one of his destinations.
In 1987, he’d traveled to Moscow and was introduced to a group of filmmakers there. That experience, in part, helped nudge him toward a film degree from UCLA in 2000. In addition to meeting those filmmakers, Aguirre says, he saw a film called Dark Eyes that treated the concept of cross-cultural encounters, a topic that interested him. In that same trip he discovered a famous Russian novel, The Master and Margarita, which nearly became his first film adaptation (he lost the rights to the piece after a change in Russia’s copyright law).
“During that trip,” says Aguirre, “I went to the Moscow Film Festival, and at the table I happened to be sitting at was this 80-year-old Iranian filmmaker holding court, with five or six of his protégés who eventually became directors on their own. And he was there until . . . The sun was coming up before it was over that night. And I thought, ‘You know, I just don’t remember being around a group of lawyers that was having this much fun.’ ”
In Russia, he fell in with social mavericks, outsiders trapped on the inside of communism—people who didn’t agree with Soviet principles but who had little choice in the matter. Those people introduced Aguirre to The Master and Margarita, a scathing satire on communism. In the book, the devil hears about a new system in Russia where people’s natures have putatively changed and they’re no longer selfish the way they used to be.
“Their motives were now driven by the common good rather than the selfish focus on self,” Aguirre says. “So the devil comes with his entourage to Moscow, and he has a very low tolerance threshold for the hypocrisy that’s everywhere. He has this series of encounters, and I think for the people living in Moscow it made the whole system they despised appear ludicrous. That was intriguing . . . and that awareness also pushed me toward going to film school.”
AGUIRRE WAS ACCEPTED into the vaunted UCLA film program, and after graduating he traveled back to Russia and then to Spain—his family’s ancestral home. He later moved to Iberia, where he met his future wife, Maria de Los Angeles. The couple was living in Madrid in 2000 when Aguirre became transfixed with the Bush vs. Gore polemic. It was a court case that would determine the direction of the free world, and it reminded him of the vast potential for doing good that had originally seduced him into the field of law.
“You know,” Maria told him, “you’re not done with law yet—it’s not out of your system.”
And she was right. The couple returned to the United States, and Aguirre looked at different aspects of law. Ironically, for a young zealot of the 1960s who’d gone into law to crusade for justice, Aguirre had pioneered a branch of class-action law that was later appropriated by some of the more avaricious of modern attorneys. He settled on the prestigious law program at George town and returned to school to be trained as a watchdog in the securities industry.
After he graduated from Georgetown, a fraud investigator’s position came open at the SEC, and one of Aguirre’s advisers suggested he apply for it. He got the job and found himself in a unique and fortunate position: He was beginning a second career in law, he was financially comfortable as a result of the first, and he was celebrating the birth of twins. What’s more, he was acting as a government-appointed Wall Street watchdog—the fulfillment of that public service obligation.
And then entered “Mack the Knife.”