Tapping into trouble

— If San Diego City Council members and other city officials haven't been seen around town using their cell phones much lately, there may be a reason. According to a raft of recently released federal wiretap statistics, the local U.S. Attorney's office has been conducting yet another of those pesky "racketeering" investigations, complete with roving taps on cell phones involving about 8800 intercepted conversations of 163 individuals. Four hundred and fifty of the conversations were deemed "incriminating," though by the end of last year, no arrests had been made. That operation, which began January 13, 2003, and averaged about 100 intercepts a day over its 120-day period, was one of 12 wiretap investigations authorized by San Diego­based U.S. district court judges Marilyn Huff and Irma Gonzalez. It reportedly cost taxpayers $91,123. That's according to the annual summary released last month on "Applications for Orders Authorizing or Approving the Interception of Wire, Oral, or Electronic Communications." It was prepared by the director of the administrative office of the U.S. Courts in Washington. Of course, the report doesn't provide any details about the nature of the investigations, but the disclosures in last year's report sent a shiver through city hall. A series of taps relating to a racketeering investigation begun April 1, 2001, intercepted more than 26,000 conversations, 1227 of which were deemed incriminating. City-council offices are still reeling from the May 2003 indictment of three city councilmen in the Cheetahs strip-club scandal.

This year, word on the street has it that U.S. attorney Carol Lam is conducting at least one grand-jury investigation into city pension-fund mismanagement, possible misdealing in municipal bonds, and other alleged financial misdeeds. Longtime city auditor Ed Ryan made a quick departure, as did city manager Michael Uberuaga, and rumors are rampant that indictments before the election could spell big trouble for the reelection hopes of Mayor Dick Murphy. The annual wiretap report doesn't include investigations in progress, so the feds may be listening in on even more conversations than thus far revealed, but the list is intriguing enough as it is. On April 15, 2003, for instance, a microphone was planted in another racketeering investigation. Only one person was involved, but the conversation, "in a public area," was said to be incriminating. The wire cost only $2316. No arrests were made. A "conspiracy" case­related cell-phone tap, which began January 30, 2003, and lasted 90 days, netted 15,513 intercepts, 568 of which were "incriminating." In that operation, which cost $62,400, two people had been arrested as of year's end. Another conspiracy-related cell- phone tap, which began on September 5, 2003, also lasted about 90 days. It cost $140,870 and involved 7118 intercepts of a total of 141 people. Five hundred eighty-seven of the conversations were said to be incriminating, but no arrests were made through December. A money-laundering case begun on January 15, 2003, was authorized for 60 days, cost $176,000, and made 3751 intercepts, 860 incriminating. Eight arrests were made. The most expensive listening operation, costing $205,899, didn't happen last year and presumably was not related to anything going on at city hall. It involved a murder case and began June 1, 2001. It lasted 210 days, picked up 14,133 conversations (3163 "incrimssinating"), and resulted in 2 trials with 15 convictions, according to the report.

Freedom isn't free In these days of naming rights and commercial sponsorships, it's probably not much of a surprise that the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce's "58th Annual Flag, General & Senior Officers Ball -- The Longest Running Military Social Event in San Diego," coming up next month, is "brought to you by Lockheed Martin. We never forget who we're working for." Scheduled guest of honor is Vice Admiral Timothy W. LaFleur, Commander Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet ... The namesake of LEAD San Diego's vaunted "Morgan" award, Union-Tribune columnist Neil Morgan, was fired this year. Maybe that explains why a quarter-page U-T display advertisement for the group's "civic leadership" awards ceremony ran this Tuesday, a day after the ritzy event was set to transpire at a downtown hotel ... Former San Diego city librarian Bill Sannwald, who was kicked upstairs a few years back and designated the public library's "design and development director," has been let go altogether as part of incoming city manager Lamont Ewell's rolling of executive heads. Sannwald says he was a participant in the city's so-called DROP (Deferred Retirement Option Plan), under which employees are allowed to collect a large lump-sum benefit upon leaving as well as continuing pension payments for life. His biggest frustration, he adds, was having turned down a lucrative job opportunity at a local health-care facility just prior to getting his notice. He says he is now working on several major library consulting projects, including one in Boston.

-- Matt Potter

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