Could Stephan surrender Cate investigation?

Shared political gurus, cash from lobbyists cloud ethics optics

Chris Cate
  • Chris Cate

In San Diego's intimately intertwined netherworld of influence-peddlers, public-relations purveyors, and political consultants, critics say, the cause of ethics and the law rarely stands a chance.

Summer Stephan

Summer Stephan

That's why the eyes of insiders are riveted on the alleged transgressions of San Diego city councilman Chris Cate and the parallel candidacy of Cate's fellow Republican, district attorney Summer Stephan, appointed to the job earlier this year by the county's all-GOP Board of Supervisors.

Stephan's so-called Public Integrity Unit received a referral from Democratic San Diego city attorney Mara Elliott before Cate's admission that he quietly handed a June 15 confidential legal memo over to Craig Benedetto, a lobbyist for SoccerCity, the Qualcomm Stadium privatization proposal headed for next year's ballot.

Hotshot California lobbyists Bob White, Craig Benedetto, and Ben Haddad are giving to San Diego candidates.

Hotshot California lobbyists Bob White, Craig Benedetto, and Ben Haddad are giving to San Diego candidates.

Barely three weeks earlier, Benedetto and his colleague Ben Haddad had raised $2850 for Cate's campaign during a May 24 fundraising reception, according to a July 31 lobbying disclosure filing with the city clerk's office.

Benedetto and Haddad are associated with the lobbying firm of California Strategies and Advocacy, whose May 1 disclosure says both worked for SoccerCity promoter MLS SD Pursuit LLC during the first quarter of the year, including contacts with Cate. During the second quarter through June 30, Benedetto alone was registered as lobbying Cate on the matter, per a July 31 filing.

Mara Elliott

Mara Elliott

Elliott blasted the leak as "an egregious breach of public trust" and called for the resignation of any city employee behind it. On October 3, Cate finally admitted he was the culprit after lawyer Cory Briggs, seeking to get to the bottom of the matter, closed in with a bevy of interrogatories, but the councilman refused to resign.

Now the hot potato is in the hands of Stephan, whose election bid in November of next year is said by local political oddsmakers to be a virtual slam-dunk, absent questions involving campaign dollars and influence of the kind that could loom if Cate's case spins out of the D.A.’s control.

In Cate's case, the political purveyor at the center of the action is Jason Roe. He is Stephan's political consultant and longtime Republican campaign guru who cofounded and ran Revolvis Consulting with partner Duane Dichiara until Roe reportedly separated from the company under undisclosed terms this summer, and Revolvis abruptly struck references to him from its website.

Jason Roe

Jason Roe

Revolvis has worked for Cate's reelection campaign since early this year, getting a total of $6947 in four payments over the period from April 20 through June 30, according to Cate's latest campaign disclosure with the city clerk.

For its part, Stephan’s campaign paid Revolvis a total of $15,571 from April of this year through June 30, according to county disclosure records covering the first half of 2017, the latest available.

Whether the connections of Roe and Revolvis to Cate and Stephan could ultimately result in the district attorney's recusal from Cate's case remains unclear, but it's not the first time that Roe has found his ubiquitous political advisory roles under scrutiny.

Mark Fabiani

Mark Fabiani

"What legal and ethical issues are raised by Mr. Roe's dual role as an apparent de facto Task Force member and as a registered lobbyist for the Delaware North company, which is bidding to become the new concessionaire at Qualcomm Stadium and, potentially, at any new stadium in San Diego?" wrote Chargers lobbyist and special counsel Mark Fabiani in a February 15, 2015, letter to San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, also a Roe client.

"Putting the legal and ethical issues aside for a moment, what sense does it make to have someone who is your chief advisor on political matters, and who advises a potential stadium vendor on business matters, play any sort of role with the 'independent' Task Force?"

Five months later, after bagging the stadium deal for Delaware North Roe deregistered with the city as a lobbyist and reportedly left Presidio Public Affairs Group, the influence-peddling firm he had established with Dichiara following Faulconer's election as mayor in 2014.

In addition to Stephan's campaign, the U-T reported last month, Roe is handling the county supervisorial bid of Stephan's predecessor and fellow Republican Bonnie Dumanis, who stepped down to allow Stephan to be appointed D.A.

Both Mayor Faulconer and City Attorney Elliott endorsed Stephan in April.

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I think as far as the legal question is concerned it is a no brainer. Stephan has a conflict a first year law student could see and needs to step aside for the Attorney General. Assuming they have not been co-opted, we could expect an honest disposition. This is not high legal scholarship no one except an expert in the area could understand. It is as fundamental as the alphabet. We need the state to come in or we won't get an honest answer.

Stephan's problem is that she's linked and tied to nearly everyone in the local power structure, and cannot be at all impartial or effective at rooting out corruption. If she steps aside on this case, she sets a precedent to step aside in all such cases, and there will or should be many more like it. In other words, she cannot be an effective DA due to her long history of involvement with local pols, and especially with her ethically-challenged predecessor. The only answer is that she not be DA. Maybe she will do the decent thing and withdraw from the race to get a full term of her own. Stranger things have happened, and I don't expect anything like that.

Why do we elect a District Attorney? An elected position attracts corruption and influence peddling. The DA should be selected from a group of qualified applicants. There should be no politics involved.

Oh, Alex, who would make the selection? It would be some politician or group of politicians, such as the governor or the board of supervisors. In either case the accountability would be farther removed from the voters. The problem isn't politics, it is voters who are utterly unaware of the issues and the personalities involved in these elections. Bad as politics can be, trying to remove things from political control makes them worse, not better.

I have to agree. I guess there is no solution so we are stuck with the government we vote for.

A day or two ago it was reported elsewhere that Stephan has passed the case to the Attorney General. So, it is pretty obvious to everyone, and even to her, that a conflict exists. The outcome will be interesting.

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