San Diego Wednesday morning, 9:45. Gloria Penner's Editors' Round Table on KPBS. "Isaac Cubillos," she says, "do you agree with Bob Kittle? Do you think our Port District is doing what it is supposed to do?"
"I think in some respects, at least from the economic perspective...the Port District has done an incredible job," says a gentle, careful voice. "But they are also tasked to protect the environment.... In 1994, the commissioners said, 'Let's do something about the South Bay habitat area.' It's been four years now when staff of the commission has been essentially stonewalling..."
It's another erudite discussion among the media's opinion leaders, with Cubillos providing a Latino voice among conservative establishment regulars Kittle from the Union-Tribune and Tim McClain from the downtown pro-business publication the Metropolitan.
You might say Cubillos is a safe choice for KPBS. The editor of Latino Beat, an online and print magazine, has a soothing, all-American voice. He campaigned for Prop 227 (the initiative to end bilingual education) and for 226 (requiring unions get individual members' permission before spending any of their dues supporting politicians). While he has often written effectively against anti-Latino racism in San Diego, Cubillos's voice has become identified with the conservative wing of Latino politics.
Isaac Cubillos has another identity, as an advocate for prison reform. And it turns out he knows prisons well. In 1991 he was sentenced to two years for embezzling nearly a quarter of a million dollars from investors at the company where he worked as a financial planner.
"I thought the guy would be smart enough to get the hell out of town," says Cubillos's former boss, W. Aubrey Morrow, president of Financial Designs Ltd. in Mission Valley. "I can't believe he's dumb enough to do things that would remind people of the fact that he embezzled money and admitted to it. Isaac hurt a lot of people. He did it maliciously. He intentionally defrauded people."
According to court documents, on May 22, 1990, the fraud division of the district attorney's office received a complaint from Morrow that Cubillos, then one of his "financial planners," had embezzled approximately $200,000 from Cecil and Modina Burbank, retired teachers then in their 80s.
"The Burbanks placed a great deal of trust in Morrow and entrusted him with all their life savings," reads a court document by D.P. Madden, a criminal investigator in the D.A.'s office. "Morrow...introduced the Burbanks to Isaac and Cynthia Cubillos, represented to be a financial planning team who could take care of [the Burbanks's] financial and personal needs."
Cubillos presented the Burbanks with a number of documents for signing in connection with the financial planning, says Madden's declaration.
"Owing to the Burbanks's advanced years, they were unable to comprehend all of the documents they signed. Cubillos thereafter proceeded to liquidate various mutual funds held by the Burbanks.... Cubillos deposited $170,000 of the proceeds into his own personal business account, which was in the name of Planning Services Group. He then used the money for his personal living expenses without the express or implied permission of the Burbanks."
Madden states that Cubillos also got the Burbanks to write a separate $30,000 check in early 1989 "for the express purpose of investing the funds in a mutual fund on their behalf." That $30,000 also ended up in Cubillos's pockets.
"I don't want to use the word devastating," says Morrow, "even though it was. In the industry I'm in, all you really have is your reputation. And you can do 99 things perfectly, but that one negative thing can wreck your life. And that was a big one."
"This was the saddest case I've ever had," says Sharon Dodson, the accountant and certified fraud examiner who discovered what Cubillos was doing. "Embezzling is too nice a word. He went to an elderly old couple, who trusted him, who were a little out of it, took their money, and spent it on his lifestyle.
"[The Burbanks] had other money, but in their minds, it made them destitute. I could never convince them otherwise. They were Depression-era mentality people. This ruined these people's lives. When they should have been enjoying their very last years, they were dealing with this lawsuit. They simply didn't get over it. It did Mr. Burbank in. He died in 1993."
Dodson, says the Burbanks were the perfect victims. "They were failing, they had no children or anyone they confided in. They were going to give their money to charity. I think [Cubillos] is an evil person. Nobody had any idea that he was anywhere in town till right now. I assumed he was in jail and then slunk away somewhere. It's amazing to me how people can do things like this and then just get back up and ask people to trust them again."
I wish to apologize for my criminal acts and to the victims for my error in judgment and deeds.... The crimes I committed were not sophisticated in their execution but as an opportunistic, greedy act on my part. I did this to, in my mind, buy my wife's affection and love. In the end, not only did I end up destroying my career, my character. But most of all lost what I most wanted to keep, my wife.... With my limited formal education [high school and limited college courses] I have gained a great reservoir of knowledge on many different businesses and occupations. I learn quickly.... I can make something of myself, work with the victims' attorney to make repayments and become once again, a positive, law-abiding citizen....
Isaac H. Cubillos
Dear Judge Thompson,
We are elderly people in our 80s who have no chance of replacing that money. This crime has caused us great emotional distress... His crime, while not one of violence to our persons, was one of violence to our well-being and security. We ask that you impose the maximum sentence....
Very truly yours,
Cecil J. Burbank
Isaac Cubillos is the son of decorated war hero Conrad Cubillos, a sergeant with the U.S. Army in the Pacific war. Isaac was born in Texas but came with his family to live in San Diego at the age of seven. He attended Brooklyn Elementary, Roosevelt Junior High, and Clairemont High. He took a few college-level courses, but by age 19 he was driving a yellow cab. "I don't believe I had any [ambitions] at that time."
It was in 1988 that he met and married Cynthia, who was already working for Morrow in financial planning. Cubillos also became interested in the business.
"At that time I was doing workshops and seminars with attorneys," says Morrow. "We had a lot of activity. I had a need for somebody to be involved in the planning process of helping people. Cindy worked on this couple's case with me. And then her husband came into the loop, helping her, which was fine with me because he was a registered securities representative, so I knew he'd be an okay guy. We ran a check on him and he had a clean record."
After Cubillos's embezzlement was discovered, Morrow says the Burbanks's lawyer tried to pressure him into repaying his clients in full and letting Cubillos go quietly. He decided to say no. "I could have settled, I guess, by paying back what he stole. But had I done that, [Cubillos] would never have been exposed."
The result: the Burbanks never got their money back, but Cubillos was arrested and on March 1, 1991, was sentenced to two years in state prison.
"I don't discuss the case at all," says Isaac Cubillos. "It is a matter of public record. It's not part of who I am today. It's been a long road, and it's not relevant to my life. Nor is the case itself relevant to anyone at this point. The conviction stands, and we deal with that. I spent a total of 18 months [in prison]."
He hasn't tried to pay back the $200,000 to the Burbanks. "Both my attorney and their attorney knew there was absolutely no way that I was going to be able to pay that back."
Prison, he says, "provided me with the time to stop the madness that was going on around me. To reflect and to reach down into the inner core of the person who I grew up being and to reevaluate who I was as a human being. I'm a very, very different person than I was back then."
It was thanks to Dan Muñoz, publisher and senior editor of La Prensa, that Cubillos got another chance, in journalism, and perhaps his first real exposure to Chicano culture.
"When Isaac came to our offices to ask me for a job [in July 1993], he showed me some pretty good stuff he'd written in the California Prisoner newspaper, published by former prisoners. He said he'd just come out of prison. I said, 'Kill anybody?' He said, 'No.' It was some white-collar crime. Being on the board of directors of the Pintos Union [an organization to help Latino ex-cons], I've begun to realize the problems these poor guys have even trying to make it back in straight society. I said, 'I'll give you a chance.' "
Muñoz threw Cubillos's first couple of stories in the trash. "I told him, 'Look: if I want an Anglo white reporter here I'll go hire me one. Now, I want you to put your brown eyes on. I want you to think of your history. Read up who you are and what you are, and I want you to start seeing from the point of view of the Chicano. The Mexican-American."
Pretty soon Cubillos was writing series on issues such as corruption and racism in the San Diego County government. That series won him a 1995 award from the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Another 1995 story, about prison guards beating inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, earned him second place in the local SPJ's awards for legal issues.
A yearlong 1994 series of articles on Mexican-American World War II veterans won him that year's local SPJ award for Outstanding Immigration/Minority Reporting.
But all did not go smoothly. After a five-week series he wrote exposing conditions at the San Ysidro Health Clinic, La Prensa was sued for $5 million. The paper's lawyers ultimately rebuffed all 31 allegations of inaccuracy, according to Muñoz.
A battle over who owned La Prensa's Web site precipitated Cubillos's departure from the paper. Muñoz says that he was worrying over what he saw as Cubillos's drift to the right anyway. "He was losing his 'brown eyes' again."
Cubillos started his own Web-based electronic magazine, Latino Beat. Late last year he was invited to join KPBS's most sought-after guest spot, as a member of Editors' Round Table.
"I've always been open about my conviction," says Cubillos. "KPBS did their due diligence. We met for several hours to talk about that."
Muñoz is not surprised. "He [has become] very, very smooth, believe me. And he is tied in considerably now with the Republican right wing, which really surprises me, because I thought I'd given him a lesson in Chicano politics. But evidently that didn't take. But I understand KPBS. It is funded by La Jolla, Rancho Santa Fe types, and the government. So they can't have someone coming in there who's out to expose, shake up the street."
Cubillo says he has not become a Republican, that he takes sides issue by issue. "My own politics go way back to my teen years, when I [supported] John Kennedy-like 'progressive Democrats.' That's the real core to my political philosophy."
Prop 227, the bilingual issue, was one of the most difficult, he says, because he knew he'd lose support within the Latino community. He says his record is clear on "crucial" issues such as anti-Latino racism.
Spokesperson Tammy Charnow says KPBS radio has always been aware of Cubillos's conviction. "We're looking at that as his past," she says. "We didn't think that would affect his ability to be a first-rate journalist. Our producer Kate Concannon did extensive interviews with [Latino] journalists throughout the county. She wanted someone who was familiar with Latino issues, had journalistic standards of integrity, and a good radio presence. He seemed to stand out."
"I know I am scrutinized," says Cubillos. "But ironically, prison was a lifesaver for me. Before, there was a certain madness going on in my life. Somewhere I lost my bearings of who I was. Now, as an ex-offender I know my stories are some of the most scrutinized. I have to be very, very accurate."
Cubillos feels he's paid his debt to society, that now society should judge him on his work. "What we're having to deal with is: can Isaac Cubillos as a journalist, because of his conviction, provide the community with the highest journalist perspective in [his] stories? And my record, in writing stories, as well as the awards I've won, as well as what those stories have done to change some of the things here in San Diego, says absolutely yes."
Three weeks ago, Cubillos's father died. Not long before, Cubillos says, his dad turned to him. "He said he was very proud of what I've accomplished. That meant everything to me."
Accountant Sharon Dodson is not convinced. "If he really felt like making amends," she says, "he would respond to the judgment against him. And pay back the money."