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San Diego Union-Tribune

NORBERTO SANTANA JR.

City, task force dealings under review | Some want contracts with members barred

February 20, 2003

Abstract:
"I'm aware of at least one conversation in September between Mr. (Les) Girard (an assistant city attorney) and Mr. [Len Simon] regarding retaining his law firm, and I expressed concern that it might be a conflict," said [David Watson], a land-use attorney and former San Diego planning commissioner.

Neither Simon nor Girard would confirm that discussions have occurred about hiring Simon's firm Milberg, Weiss, Bershad, Hynes & Lerach.

Task force member Karen Heumann, an attorney who served with Simon and Watson on the contract committee, said she would only see a conflict if a task force member were to represent the Chargers in future dealings with the city.

Full Text:
Copyright SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE PUBLISHING COMPANY Feb 20, 2003

Editions vary
A lawyer on the Chargers task force is the focal point of a debate over whether volunteer panel members can work for the city on future business deals involving the team.

The task force chairman is concerned about possible contract talks between the city and panel member Len Simon, an attorney who chaired a committee on the city's contract with the Chargers.

Chairman David Watson considers the matter so central to the panel's credibility that he wants the task force to prohibit members from becoming paid city consultants on any matter involving the team.

The 15 members of the Citizens' Task Force on Chargers Issues are expected to debate the prohibition at their 6:30 meeting tonight in the San Diego City Council chambers.

"I'm aware of at least one conversation in September between Mr. (Les) Girard (an assistant city attorney) and Mr. Simon regarding retaining his law firm, and I expressed concern that it might be a conflict," said Watson, a land-use attorney and former San Diego planning commissioner.

Neither Simon nor Girard would confirm that discussions have occurred about hiring Simon's firm Milberg, Weiss, Bershad, Hynes & Lerach.

"We talk about the Chargers a lot," said Simon of his interaction with the City Attorney's Office. "We talk about task force business. But I don't want to comment beyond that. I don't want to comment on what would be a privileged conversation."

Simon does oppose the prohibition and said he has spoken with about a half dozen task force members on the issue.

Girard would not comment on the city's strategy for hiring law firms. However, he said, if such conversations had occurred, they would not violate state conflict of interest laws.

"Talking to someone about their availability in the future is not a violation of the law," Girard said.

He said no one on the task force or firms associated with members have been given a contract for city services.

Watson said the issue is serious because of the volatile nature of the stadium debate and heightened concerns about ethics in city government.

"I think it would be inappropriate for any member of the task force to position themselves to try to work for the city after the task force. It calls into question the credibility of the task force process," Watson said.

Because task force members had to file forms disclosing their financial interests, they are considered public officials, said Robert Stern, who co-authored the state Political Reform Act of 1974 and has worked as general counsel for the state's Fair Political Practices Commission.

Under state law, public officials are not allowed to make decisions that affect their economic interests.

Stern said any discussion between Simon and Girard on future city contracts "raises some questions," but there might not be a violation. The problem is with perception, he said.

"The public could question if these people were serving out of a love for public service or had a desire to be hired," Stern said.

He suggested the task force seek an opinion from the city Ethics Commission.

Some task force members said they were torn between allowing city leaders flexibility on the issue and guarding the panel's credibility.

"I think the city should surround themselves with the best and the brightest to assist them in preparing their legal strategy," said task force member Geoff Patnoe, executive director of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. "However, I don't believe it would be appropriate for task force members to be lobbying for or signing a contract with either the city or the Chargers before the task force has completed its work."

Task force member Karen Heumann, an attorney who served with Simon and Watson on the contract committee, said she would only see a conflict if a task force member were to represent the Chargers in future dealings with the city.

As long as the contracts were initiated by the city and not the task force member, there shouldn't be a conflict, said task force member Jeff Smith, a real estate development executive.

If Simon and Girard were only having informal conversations, Smith said, he would not take issue. "But if it went further than that, there may be a problem," he said.

Norberto Santana: (619) 718-5069; norberto.santana@uniontrib.com


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