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Lawyers, Guns and Money

Okay, forget the guns. But shoot, why are we—taxpayers—paying so much for San Diego City Council and staff legal fees?


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FOUR OF SAN DIEGO’S political leaders have racked up roughly half a million dollars in legal fees. Not collectively. Each. Given the city’s other, weightier fiscal ills, should we care? Hell, yes. If you’re a taxpayer, you’re footing their bills. At last count, Councilman Jim Madaffer’s lawyer had pocketed $469,000 from San Diego taxpayers. Another lawyer made $624,000 representing council president Scott Peters. Toni Atkins ($568,000) and Brian Maienschein ($496,000) sit in the middle range of this $2.1 million legal sandwich.

Our politicians are certainly entitled to indemnification. They say they got bad advice when they approved bond issues that continued the erosion of our city’s pension fund. And after a lengthy investigation, our civic leaders were labeled “negligent.” Are they still being investigated? Could they be charged with something? Nobody’s sure. Looking for those answers is a hit-or-miss task——akin to opening cases searching for big bucks on Deal or No Deal.

So hang on. In April, federal fraud charges were filed against five former San Diego city staff, including former city manager Michael Uberuaga. The legal bill for this quintet totals nearly $1.8 million. Yes, we’re paying for their lawyers, too. The city council——half of its members already getting public assistance on their bills——finds itself in the position of deciding whether to continue paying legal fees for the former staff now charged with fraud.

Meanwhile, what do we make of Councilmember Donna Frye’s legal strategy? She was also named as “negligent” for voting with Peters, Atkins, Maienschein and Madaffer on the bonds. Frye, however, paid her lawyer out of her own pocket. She says it cost her less than $10,000.

That was not a typo.

We’ll come back to this.

Our city councilmembers also voted recently to bump up their take-home pay by 24 percent, from roughly $75,000 to about $100,000. This decision came despite a lockdown on all public salaries except for police and firefighters, and it came during a downturned economy. It was approved in spite of a billion-dollar pension deficit. And despite the fact San Diego is still locked out of the bond market——because of the decisions made by the council based on bad advice from experts and staff now facing federal fraud charges.

Councilmember Ben Hueso (no legal fees pending presently) went on KUSI-TV and told the bubbly morning team, “There’s never a good time to suggest a pay raise for politicians.” True. But there are also completely wrong times to wave this flag. Hello.

The public outcry was heard. Mayor Jerry Sanders threatened a veto. Hueso and Peters later flipped their votes on the pay raise, and the issue went away. Peters, meanwhile, is in a race to be our next city attorney. How many voters did he believe he was pulling in by voting for a pay raise while the city is nearly in hock? Maienschein is also running for city attorney. His lawyer may be costing us half a mil, but the councilman knows enough to vote against a pay raise while running for office.


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