How Alex Spanos Made Off with the Police Building Fund

The stadium expansion and the pueblo lands

Alex Spanos (in glasses) dines last week at downtown's Athens Market restaurant. “Yeah, that’s right, they’re going to steal the money for Alex’s Chargers training field from the cops’ pueblo land fund."
  • Alex Spanos (in glasses) dines last week at downtown's Athens Market restaurant. “Yeah, that’s right, they’re going to steal the money for Alex’s Chargers training field from the cops’ pueblo land fund."
  • Image by Joe Klein

The voice on the other end of the line sounded tired, strained, agitated, and angry, all at the same time, unlike its usual self-assured self. “You can’t let anybody know I’m talking,” it said. “I’d be crucified. But I wanted to tell you you left a hell of a lot out of that damn Alex Spanos-picks-your-pockets story a few weeks ago.” The voice belonged to one of the biggest cheeses in local politics and government, the kind of guy who’s used to voicing his opinions in loud and authoritative tones. This time, though, he was on deep, deep background.

“The big boys around here want this stadium deal real bad,” he said, “and they’re going to do everything they have to do to get it Anybody who gets in the way better watch their goddamn backs.” We’d heard that before, of course, from a string of anonymous tipsters, all of whom voiced sour and cynical opinions about Spanos and the ends to which he went to put all that money and power together. Maybe they had their stuff together, maybe they didn’t. We’re still busy checking it out.

Sunday's Browns game. “Okay, first, you never mentioned that 60,000-seat guarantee the city council gave Alex. That’s like a license to steal from the taxpayers."

Sunday's Browns game. “Okay, first, you never mentioned that 60,000-seat guarantee the city council gave Alex. That’s like a license to steal from the taxpayers."

Meanwhile this guy was a known commodity, a longtime fixture of the establishment who seems to know every political back-alley and smoke-filled room in the county, a team player. Except now he was out of the corral and madder than hell. When he was assured he wouldn’t be quoted by name, he started talking fast. “Okay, first, you never mentioned that 60,000-seat guarantee the city council gave Alex. That’s like a license to steal from the taxpayers. Secondly, you failed to point out that the Padres’ lease has a big fat window in it that’s going to let them escape if we don’t turn around and build a new baseball stadium after we get done turning this one into a football-only venue. If the Padres pull out, the taxpayers are going to be shelling out plenty more. It’s a real backdoor deal, a real raw deal.”

Okay, we told him, that sounds pretty bad. But the mayor and Jack McGrory, the city manager, say not to worry, that the Padres would never leave town, and the Chargers are bound to win a Super Bowl one of these days. The seat guarantee won’t have to be used.

He snorted. “That’s another thing. You didn’t even mention the big role Spanos is playing in the Republican convention. He’s bringing in millions of dollars from all over the country to pay for all that expensive partying. Without him, both McGrory and Golding would have plenty of egg on their face, not to mention that goddamn Union-Tribune, which is staging the most massive cover-up since Nixon did Watergate. These guys will be out of office in a couple of years — Golding will be in the Senate or married to another shifty guy — but the debts they’re running up today are going to be with us for 30 years. This isn’t magic money we’re talking about. It’s real cash, and it’s going straight into Alex’s pocket.”

We had to admit that the “Dean Spanos is hurt” story the Union-Tribune ran last week on its sports page, in which Alex’s son was allowed to complain at will about unnamed critics of the stadium deal, without permitting any response from the citizens who want to put the $80 million-plus plan on the ballot, had all the earmarks of the U-T’s bad old days.

“But that’s all chicken shit compared to the other thing you missed,” our telephonic critic continued. “McGrory and the city council are about to loot the pueblo land fund.”

Pueblo lands? That sounded familiar, but the memory needed a little jogging. Years ago, the city owned a lot of the land up in Torrey Pines and what is now University City. Before the “pueblo” land (former Mexican land) could be sold, the city charter required a vote of the people. When the University of California came along looking for land to build a new campus on in the 1950s, the people voted to give it to them.

When in the 1970s then-mayor Pete Wilson tried to sell off some land to some friendly campaign contributors, the people voted against it.

Then Wilson came up with another proposition: if the people would vote to sell off the land, he would guarantee, by law, that all the proceeds would go to pay for new police facilities, like substations, training schools, evidence rooms, driving tracks, shooting ranges, anything and everything in the way of permanent improvements needed to fight crime. With those terms locked into place, in the form of an ordinance on the September 1979 ballot, the people voted to sell the remaining pueblo lands.

Since then, some substations have been built, but the city has grown mightily and plenty more are needed. According to a police spokesman, at least $100 million will be required over the next ten years or so. North City West needs a new station, costing about $8 million. So does the Central area, around 30th and Imperial, where crime is skyrocketing. The cops also have their eye on a new training facility, maybe on the grounds of the old Naval Training Center. That’s going to run at least $30 million. If the police can’t get the Navy’s land and leftover buildings, the cost could shoot up by $100 million. Then there’s a new shooting range. And getting the SWAT team out of some run-down old trailers.

The remaining pueblo land left to be sold under the terms of the ’79 ballot measure, with all proceeds going to police, probably won’t raise more than $12 million, but at least it’s a start. The Logan Heights substation is long overdue and can be built with the newfound cash.

But the city council has other plans.

“Yeah, that’s right, they’re going to steal the money for Alex’s Chargers training field from the cops’ pueblo land fund. A big chunk of their pueblo land money is earmarked for Alex,” another inside source told us when we called to confirm what sounded like the wildest Spanos tale yet. “McGrory thinks he can get away from it because nobody is looking, and the Union-Tribune isn’t going to tell anybody about it. They break the law over there [city hall] all the time, and let’s face it, if you control the city attorney, the prosecutor, the city auditor, and the police chief himself, who the hell is going to catch you?”

A city managers report, dated last month, outlines the scheme. As part of his deal to keep the Chargers in town, Spanos gets an elaborate training and office complex. To come up with enough scratch to buy it, McGrory decided to sell off some of the city’s remaining pueblo lands. A lot of the proceeds, expected to generate almost $9 million, are to be turned over to, of all people, San Diego Gas & Electric, which has conveniently come up with the only site the city wants, on the southwest comer of Murphy Canyon Road and Balboa Avenue. A source says that because the city is in a hurry to get its Chargers deal done before it unravels under public scrutiny, SDG&E is in the catbird seat. The exact cost of the land deal has so far not been made public.

Officially, the city denies any impropriety or mismanagement in the transaction. However, a request under the state public records act for escrow documents and other paperwork relating to the deal is still awaiting a response from the city’s real estate department.

Spanos would get the practice field and accompanying improvements as part of his new 25-year stadium lease, the same deal under which the city will be paying for the controversial seat guarantee and the taxpayer-backed stadium expansion. The lease between the team and the city describes the new practice field digs as “a ‘state-of-the-art’ practice field, training facility and offices.” The document goes on to say, “The building shall include the following elements: weight room, sports medicine facility, locker rooms, showers, other amenities, team meeting rooms, video suites, offices, and storage and shall be of size and quality comparable to such facilities at Joe Robbie Stadium.” As for the practice fields themselves, there will actually be three. “Two (2) full natural grass fields and one (1) artificial turf field.” Cost? “$10 million, excluding land costs.”

But what about the pueblo land money? The language of the ’79 ballot seems clear enough: “All proceeds from lease on sale of the above described Pueblo Lots shall be placed into a Capital Outlay Fund to be used solely and exclusively for the purpose of financing acquisition and construction of police substations and other permanent improvements for police purposes.”

Pretty ironclad. Under terms of the ballot measure, if the pueblo land is sold, money goes to pay for cop stuff, not quarterbacks and place-kickers. As long as there is still a need for new police facilities, shouldn’t the money be used as the voters decided? Deputy City Attorney Curtis Fitzpatrick, who says he is drafting a written legal opinion on the subject, says, simply, no. “I’ve already opined to council that I believe there is no reason why they couldn’t move in this direction [of using pueblo land money for the Chargers].

“Although the [1979 ballot measure] talked about the monies going towards police, over the years since the ordinance was ratified by the voters, the general fund had had to spend a considerable amount of money [on police improvements],” he notes. “If [the city council] had not advanced money from the general fund, the [police building] programs would have literally stalled because there simply wasn’t enough proceeds from these lands [at the time].”

In other words, the city’s position is that since it already spent other tax money to build some police substations over the last 15 years, it now is free to “reimburse” itself for that money, using the newly acquired $9 million from the sale of pueblo lands, and then spend the loot any way it wants — in this case handing it over to Spanos in the form of land for the new practice facility.

“The 1979 [ballot] language dictated the original use of the money for police, yes, I would concede that,” says Fitzpatrick. “But the fact remains that the general fund has advanced a considerable amount of money, and I was satisfied that the intentment [sic] of the ordinance was completed, because [voters] got what they voted for, they got the police decentralization program.”

For their part, critics point out that the ’79 ballot measure made no reference to using the money to pay back purported “loans” of general-fund tax money, made by the city council to its own police department. They also note that the decentralization program is not yet completed. And they point out that if the council had wanted to treat its general-fund support of police as a “loan” to be paid back out of subsequent pueblo land sales, it should have drafted loan documents to cover its paper trail. No evidence of that has yet been produced.

The only way to stop the council from spending the police money on the football field is a lawsuit, says local attorney Bob Glaser. “It’s a tired, all-too-familiar old story. The citizens of this city are required to go to court over and over and over to protect their voters’ rights, because the city attorney’s office is not doing it,” Glaser maintains. “The city attorney’s office is not standing up to the mayor and council and saying, ‘No, we owe a duty to the voters to spend this money in the way that was promised.’ There was never a concept of borrow and loan and repayment. There was never a concept that this money could be arbitrarily used by council for other purposes such as Charger practice fields You can look at the precise language of the proposition and see that the voters’ intent was clear: all proceeds should go directly into police improvements, period.”

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts? The saga continues.

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