Since midway through last year, money has poured into the race for San Diego city attorney. Four candidates have raised a combined $743,000 and a fifth, late entrant has yet to file any campaign finance reports.
Why this matters
Information about who supports candidates can help voters make better-informed decisions.
This is the first contested election for the position since 2008, when current officeholder Jan Goldsmith beat then-incumbent Mike Aguirre. If no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote in June, the two top vote-getters will face off in November to lead the department that gives legal advice to city officials, represents San Diego in court and prosecutes misdemeanors.
A leading source of funds for all candidates in the race is legal professionals.
Individuals who listed attorney, lawyer, general counsel or some variation of those as their occupation contributed a combined $229,000 as of Dec. 31 — the closing deadline for the last campaign statement.
Fellow lawyers ponying up cash in a race for such a position isn’t unheard of. Legal professionals donated more than $300,000 in 2014’s race for San Diego County district attorney.
At least $15,000 of the sum raised for this year’s city attorney race has come from nearly three dozen lawyers working at firms that have sued the city in the past five years, and more than $1,500 has come from seven judges who might oversee cases involving the City Attorney’s Office.
Judges making campaign contributions
Seven sitting San Diego County Superior Court judges made contributions in the city attorney race, which is officially nonpartisan. The contributions totaled $100 to $400 per judge, and all went to Republican Robert Hickey, a deputy district attorney who primarily does gang and drug prosecutions.
Contributions from Superior Court Judges to Robert Hickey
|ARMOUR, CARLOS O.||North County Court, Master Criminal Calendar||250|
|BOWMAN, BLAINE K.||North County Court, Trial||100|
|DEDDEH, PETER C.||Main Courthouse, Assistant Presiding||400|
|EYHERABIDE, EUGENIA||Main Courthouse, Trials||100|
|GOLDSTEIN, DANIEL||East County Court, Criminal||149|
|HAEHNLE, GARRY||South County Court, Criminal||250|
|MONROY, RICHARD R.||North County Court, Trial/Criminal Law and Motion||300|
Geoffrey Hazard, professor emeritus of law at the University of California Hastings College of Law, said the contributions are problematic.
“Judges are supposed to appear to be neutral as well as being neutral, and to contribute to election campaigns is to effectively favor one of the candidates — a person who will presumably have cases in front of the judge,” said Hazard, a specialist in legal ethics. “So I think somebody on the other side would think there is a disadvantage because the judge has previously expressed in a very material way a support for the opposing lawyer.”
Judge Blaine Bowman donated $100 to Hickey in September, and he doesn’t see anything wrong with that.
“When you become a judge, you do lose certain privileges,” Bowman said. “You don’t lose them all, though, so long as you play by the rules.”
Those rules are the California Code of Judicial Ethics. The code places many restrictions on judges’ political activities. They can’t publicly endorse nonjudicial candidates (that is, candidates other than those running to be a fellow judge). They can’t hold leadership roles in political organizations.
“I can’t put a yard sign out in my front yard for a nonjudicial candidate,” Bowman said.
The code does, however, allow judges to contribute up to $500 to a nonjudicial candidate. And Bowman noted his contribution falls well within that limit.
Bowman also said he doesn’t preside over cases involving the City Attorney’s Office because he’s been assigned to the courthouse in Vista since becoming a judge eight years ago. That’s not a guarantee he won’t be in that position in the future, because judges rotate assignments and courthouses.
Judge Peter Deddeh, who’s assigned to downtown San Diego’s main courthouse, gave Hickey more than any other judge, $400.
Like Bowman, he said he doesn’t believe his contribution poses an ethical quandary.
“I guess with the City Attorney’s Office, it’s such a big institution,” Deddeh said. “They do hundreds and hundreds of cases, and to think because I donated to the city attorney means I’m going to not be fair to these two attorneys in front of me, I just think the optics aren’t that negative when you look at the big picture.”
In a statement, Hickey expressed no qualms about accepting contributions from judges who might preside over cases his office litigates.
“I’m appreciative of the support from judges who know and respect my legal skills,” Hickey said. Hickey has raised about $182,000 in total.
Gil Cabrera, one of Hickey’s Democratic opponents, said he trusted the judges to “maintain their objectivity regardless of who wins” but described the situation as less than ideal.
“I mean I have faith that the judges are able to sort of maintain their impartiality regardless of who wins,” said Cabrera, an attorney in private practice and former chairman of the San Diego City Ethics Commission. “I have been supported by a number of obviously retired judges, which I think is probably the more appropriate time to be making campaign contributions as a judge.”
Cabrera said he’s asked sitting judges not to contribute to his campaign “because I don’t want to put them in that circumstance.”
Bowman and Deddeh worked with Hickey in the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office. And while both are careful to avoid running afoul of the code of ethics by endorsing his candidacy, both called him a friend.
Should Hickey win, Deddeh doubts attorneys going up against the City Attorney’s Office in his courtroom would be upset if they knew he contributed to the city attorney’s campaign, given San Diego’s tightknit legal world.
“I guess the way I look at it is we have people coming into our department all the time who are people we’ve dealt with before,” Deddeh said. “Maybe you don’t have a social relationship with them, but you know them.”
Lawyers donating, too
More than a third of contributions in the race have come from lawyers. And some $15,000 of that has come from lawyers working at 21 firms that have sued the city of San Diego since 2011.
Contributions from Firms Representing Clients who Have Sued San Diego
|BANKER’S HILL LAW FIRM||250|
|BRIGGS LAW CORPORATION||1,050|
|BUNN LAW GROUP||250|
|CASEY GERRY SCHENK FRANCAVILLA BLATT PENFIELD||2,725|
|COAST LAW GROUP, LLP||400|
|CONTRERAS LAW GROUP||250|
|CRAIG A. SHERMAN A PROF LAW CORP.||250|
|DAVID HORWITZ ATTY AT LAW||50|
|EPSTEN, GRINNELL & HOWELL||150|
|IREDALE & YOO, APC||1,050|
|JOSHUA D, GRUENBERG, APC||1,050|
|KAZEROUNI LAW GROUP, APC||1,500|
|LAW OFFICE OF PATRICK G. SHEA, APC||200|
|LAW OFFICE OF ROCKY K. COPLEY||500|
|LEPINE LAW GROUP||200|
|LOUNSBERY FERGUSON ALTONA & PEAK, LLP||600|
|METSCH & MASON, LLP||400|
|SHEPPARD MULLIN RICHTER & HAMPTON LLP||2,175|
|SILVER, HADDEN, SILVER & LEVINE||500|
Most attorneys inewsource reached out to didn’t return requests for comment. One who did was Steve Coopersmith, managing attorney at The Coopersmith Law Firm.
Coopersmith is representing the AFL-CIO Building Trades Council and Civic San Diego board member Murtaza Baxamusa in a case against the city-owned nonprofit.
He gave $1,300 to Democratic candidate Rafael Castellanos, an attorney and San Diego port commissioner, explaining he was supporting a man he’s known and admired for a long time.
“I’m a private citizen. I can donate to whoever I like,” Coopersmith said. “My relationship with Rafael, for example, is as a friend. I’ve known him for probably 10 years or more.” He said he saw Castellanos rise from an associate at a law firm to partner and then onto San Diego port commissioner.
And he didn’t think it was a problem for attorneys with suits against the city to fund their potential opponent.
“I do not think that contributions — especially within the very congenial and collegial San Diego legal community, which it is — I don’t think that contributions to fellow lawyers for support for higher office really have anything to do with the actual way that lawyers or judges operate on actual cases,” Coopersmith said.
Altogether, Castellanos received at least $6,700 from 11 attorneys working at nine firms that had sued the city since 2011. Castellanos has raised a total of about $306,000 altogether.
A call to Castellanos’ political consultant requesting comment was not returned.
Cabrera, who received at least $6,325 from 12 lawyers working at 10 firms that have sued the city since 2011, said the amount was “a small percentage” of the more than $89,000 in contributions he’s received from legal professionals. Cabrera has raised about $206,000 in total.
And he was adamant that the contributions wouldn’t sway his defense of the city in lawsuits.
“I’ve said before in terms of some of the endorsements I’ve received from attorneys that have sued the city that I’m going to have no problem objectively analyzing any claims that are brought against the city, regardless of who the lawyer is,” Cabrera said. “And in my experience, it never hurts the clients for the lawyers to have a relationship with the lawyers on the other side,” explaining a cordial relationship with opposing attorneys could lead to more productive settlement negotiations.
Cabrera also pointed to his request that San Diego Convention Center vendors not contribute to his campaign as an example of his sensitivity to perceptions of ethical conflicts, as he sits on the convention center’s board.
Democratic candidate Mara Elliott, a deputy city attorney, raised at least $1,525 from six attorneys employed by six firms that had represented individuals suing the city since 2011. Elliott has raised about $48,000 in total.
Spokesman Dan Rottenstreich scoffed at the notion that campaign contributions could influence his candidate.
“She’s taken on powerful interests when she needed to. She’s said ‘No’ to city officials when she’s had to,” Rottenstreich said. “She’ll do that as city attorney regardless of who contributed to her campaign.”
Rottenstreich added that the donors in question gave out of honest support for Elliott’s candidacy.
“I would add if you look at the six donors, I think it was, these are all people who she has either a personal relationship with or attorneys who believe in Mara’s vision for the office, believe in her candidacy,” pointing to former San Diego City Attorney John Witt, currently a lawyer at Lounsberry Ferguson Altona & Peak LLP.
Hickey, recipient of at least $800 from three attorneys at firms that have represented clients suing the city since 2011, said in his statement that he was unaware of the donors’ firms’ litigation.
“With respect to the other three attorneys, this is the first I’ve heard of the matter and don’t know the details,” Hickey wrote. “I don’t believe City Attorney candidates should be targeting serial litigants against the City for fundraising.”
Democrat Bryan Pease has not yet filed a campaign finance report because of a late entry into the race.
Geoffrey Hazard, the UC Hastings professor, said the contributions, like those from judges, are less than ideal, but that there wasn’t much that could be done about it with the system as it is.
“That’s not so good either, but you know one of the problems with electing (court) officials is that running for election costs money. So who are they going to go to for it?” asked Hazard.
This story has been updated to include a clarification from Robert Hickey’s campaign that was received after the story was published. Hickey was unaware of the donors’ firms’ litigation, not the contributions themselves.