It was September 17 of last year, and City Attorney Mike Aguirre was making headlines again. This time the subject was an impending water shortage, and Aguirre had called a news conference to demand a moratorium on construction of large housing and commercial developments in the city because, he maintained, there wouldn’t be enough water to serve the new residences.
Aguirre repeatedly criticized Mayor Jerry Sanders, asserting that the mayor had no real plan for water conservation and had spurned plans for new water treatment systems involving the recycling of sewage in favor of what Aguirre said was a costly desalination plan.
As he had many times before, Fred Sainz, Mayor Jerry Sanders’s communications director, whom many see as the political controller behind the former cop, went into action. One of those he contacted first was Christine Frahm, a lawyer and water industry lobbyist and Sanders campaign donor.
Sanders’s developer constituency was not happy with the threat to shut down building in the city over a small issue like the water supply. An email obtained under the state’s Public Records Act relates the story.
“I thought these two memos would be of interest to you,” wrote Sainz in a September 17 email to Frahm, to which he attached Aguirre’s latest legal opinions about the water shortage. “Would you mind calling me about them?”
A few months later, on March 14 of this year, Frahm, her law partner James M. Ralph, and Alexandria Frahm would each contribute $320 to the Sanders reelection campaign fund.
The Sainz contacts with Frahm are one of many examples of the close ties between Sainz and other Sanders aides and the lobbyists who are helping fund the mayor’s reelection bid and related political efforts.
While ordinary citizens often have trouble talking to anyone in the mayor’s office or are expressly shut out altogether on Sainz’s whim, well-heeled lobbyists such as Frahm who contribute heavily to the mayor’s campaigns receive almost instant access.
But some observers claim that the money given to Sanders is buying more than just access and is instead influencing major policy moves for the enrichment of the mayor’s contributors and political consultants.
Frahm’s firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, is currently registered to lobby the state legislature on behalf of numerous water interests, both public and private, including the Olivenhain Municipal Water District and the Otay Water District.
According to her bio on her firm’s website, Frahm’s “legal practice emphasizes the coordination and strategic engagement of lobbying services at the state and local level to support client efforts to secure new water supplies or better manage existing supplies.”
A onetime chairwoman of the San Diego County Water Authority, Frahm, working as a lobbyist, has “has helped clients secure state and federal funding for local water supply development programs,” including “seawater desalination,” her profile says.
The county’s biggest desalination proposal is being mounted by Poseidon Resources, a firm that earlier this year obtained a contract to build a giant $300 million desalination plant on the coast in Carlsbad.
Sanders has been one of that project’s most stalwart supporters. A firm owned by his political consultant Tom Shepard was the plant’s primary lobbyist and public relations consultant, having been hired in May 2006.
And campaign contribution records showed that Poseidon employees have been major Sanders contributors. On March 16, 2006, CEO Andrew Kingman, president Walter Windrow, and project manager Peter MacLaggan each gave maximum $300 contributions to the Sanders campaign.
In December 2006, Poseidon itself gave $2500 to San Diegans for City Hall Reform, a committee set up by Sanders to advance his agenda. Then, last November, Sanders vetoed the so-called toilet-to-tap plan adopted by the city council, arguing that desalination was a better choice.
The Sainz emails also confirm a close relationship with Public Policy Strategies, the lobbying firm run by Sanders political consultant Tom Shepard, which represents Poseidon.
In an email to Sainz, Kim Hale, a lobbyist employed by Public Policies, described a public relations event she was setting up at the mayor’s behest.
“Please find the revised invite to our Thank You event, which is based off of our conversation last Wednesday afternoon. Please review, edit and approve as the invite must go out today to SDPD, SD Fire Rescue, Lifeguards, SDMSE.”
Sainz’s interest and influence extend to virtually every corner of the city.
Sainz berated Sanders homeland security chief Jill Olen after she failed to notify him immediately about a traffic incident involving a police officer. “FYI,” Olen had written in a January 19 email to Sainz.
“P-1 Tom Broxterman was driving S/B on Genesee at Balbo7a in a Police car hit Honda CRV 80 yr old driver flipping their car. No injuries.” She added that Sanders had already been notified. But that wasn’t sufficient for Sainz.
“Jill: It’s NOT good enough to send me an email on a Saturday about these things. I need to be called and told,” Sainz emailed her on January 22. “How do we make that happen?”
Some stories apparently needed to be kept quiet. On October 29, city comptroller Greg Levin circulated an email warning that contributions to the city’s fire relief fund weren’t being properly accounted for.
“I would like to send this out today, as Gail is calling and telling me that she is being inundated with donations that are not being tracked or recorded. We have to think about the exposure of the City if the donations fall into the wrong hands etc.”
Responded Sainz, apparently piqued about the circulation list on the email: “Why on God’s green earth was Larry copied on this??????”
A master at managing local reporters, Sainz didn’t hesitate to threaten retaliation against a reporter who drew his ire, even though she was working for the Union-Tribune, which rarely, if ever, seriously questions the Sanders agenda.
On December 4, he dashed off an email to Jennifer Vigil of the Union-Tribune. “I think the way in which the section about the Mayor’s availability was written in today’s story was not fair to him. I do not often write to comment on articles — either positively or negatively — but this one really got my dander up because it is misleading and gives the false impression that he is some kind of a laggard — when the truth is that he worked all weekend.”
The email concluded with a threat to withhold information from Vigil in the future. “I also understand that my comment to you was not off the record but I never intended for it to appear in print. While I am obviously not happy that it appeared in print for the reasons that I detail above, I hope that you will understand when I simply tell you that he is unavailable in the future — and not give you any further details.”
Vigil responded: “In truth, this sounds like the opinions of a politico who’s very protective of his man. So protective that he forgets it doesn’t hurt to let people know that the mayor is a living breathing normal human being who does normal everyday things. I am a reporter who likes those details, things that are not cut from the same bland cloth that is oh-so-safe for politicians. I’m sorry if you’re offended.”
For reporters who played ball, Sainz was accommodating. On September 27, he was forwarded an email from Joanne Faryon, a reporter who has covered the mayor for KPBS radio, the public broadcasting operation owned and operated by San Diego State University.
“I have the oddest of requests,” wrote Faryon. “Mike Marcotte, KPBS news director of 12 years, is leaving the station Nov 7. He’s moving to Santa Barbara with his fiancée. I am making a parody documentary for his going away party.
“I am shooting the video on a home camera and then editing into a final product. I am asking people, where were you when you heard Mike Marcotte was leaving KPBS. In fact, I have a few reporter friends in Toronto and Washington D.C. who are shooting fake news clips.
“I was also in New York recently and got video of the reader board in Times Square, which read… ‘This just in…Mike Marcotte leaving KPBS.’
“So here’s my request. Do you think the mayor would do a fake 30 second statement about the loss of Mike Marcotte…how sad he is, etc.
“It will only take a few minutes, I can do it anytime he is available in the next week.”
Sainz emailed his assistant Eileen Brennan with the response: “Let’s do this.”
Sainz was also not above trying to tag along after bigger political stars in order to get his boss at least a small bit of national exposure, but he had little luck. On November 7 of last year, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived in town to hold a news conference at SeaWorld, pointing out that the area’s tourist destinations had been unscathed by the recent fires.
The previous day Sainz got an email from Stacey Sanner, a public relations woman from the big firm of Edelman, employed to promote tourism here. It highlighted the problems of hyping the little-known Sanders on national news shows.
“Good Morning America — booker asked if Governor Schwarzenegger was available, also noted that they were pretty booked tomorrow but asked for details via e-mail for further consideration. Essentially they would consider it more strongly if the Mayor would do the interview with the Governor. Please let us know if that is a possibility.”
“Fox Business Channel — passed on the opportunity after reviewing programming for the day; market is too volatile and they don’t have the time.”
“MSNBC — Passed due to so much breaking news today. Note: the news networks are covering a few breaking news items today — an escaped prisoner in Florida who shot an officer while he was being transported, schools are in lockdown and there is an intense manhunt underway. Also, situation in Pakistan is getting tenser — judges being arrested, citizens protesting, etc.”