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For a brief period 15 years ago, Robert Hickey represented JMI Realty and the San Diego Padres. Now JMI's pushing a ballot measure the current city attorney says is illegal.
Deputy District Attorney Robert Hickey’s case to become San Diego’s next city attorney has hinged heavily on his plans to fix the city’s system for prosecuting crimes.
It’s not a surprising angle: as a veteran prosecutor, that’s where he has the most experience.
But for a brief period 15 years ago, Hickey left the DA’s office for private practice and represented JMI Realty and the San Diego Padres in their attempts to ward off litigation in order to finish building Petco Park.
On one hand, it shows he’s had experience with the sorts of land-use issues with which the city attorney often deals. Indeed, Hickey makes a point of mentioning the experience at community forums to buttress his qualifications.
But with JMI now behind a November ballot initiative that the current city attorney says is illegal, it could mean a victorious Hickey would soon face off with his former client.
Former Padres owner and patriarch of JMI Realty John Moores also contributed $1,050 to Hickey’s campaign, the maximum contribution for a citywide race. His wife, Dianne Moores, also maxed out to Hickey. He’s the only candidate they’re supporting this election cycle. JMI isn’t exclusively supporting Hickey, though. The company’s senior VP of construction, James Chatfield, has donated $500 to one of his opponents, Port Commissioner Rafael Castellanos.
Voice of San Diego requested past client lists from all of the city attorney candidates. Everyone except Port Commissioner Rafael Castellanos complied.
Construction on Petco Park began in May 2000. In September of that year, it was halted over lawsuits from former City Councilman Bruce Henderson that kept the city from issuing bonds to pay for the project. Construction stopped for 15 months.
Hickey was one of the lawyers who tried to get the project started again.
“That’s where I got my first glimpse into how the city attorney deals with these lawsuits that are designed to – well, I can’t say what they’re designed to do – but which thwart the will of policymakers,” he said. “It gave me a glimpse into the role of the city attorney.”
Before that, Hickey said, he knew Henderson and others like him regularly sued the city. It was working for JMI and the Padres that taught him how their process works.
“I don’t like things that are done to obstruct the will of the voters,” Hickey said. “If the will of the voters is unconstitutional, I get it. But not if it’s a procedural attack, or an attack on CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act). I think it’s fair to say that most people recognize that CEQA is abused.”
With Petco Park, the city was on the same side as JMI and the Padres. They all wanted to get the ballpark built.
Now, though, JMI is pushing its own initiative along with the city’s most common legal foe, Cory Briggs.
The Citizens’ Plan they’re pursuing together would increase hotel taxes and revamp development restrictions in Mission Valley and East Village, where it would make way for a joint convention center-football stadium.
Current City Attorney Jan Goldsmith says it’s illegal. If voters approve it in November – and the new city attorney agrees with the current one’s analysis – that could pit the city against JMI over the plan.
Hickey said he wouldn’t have a problem opposing JMI.
“It just wouldn’t make me uncomfortable, and I don’t think JMI would say ‘Hey, he worked with us in 2001 and 2002,’” he said. “It’s a closed matter, and it was a closed matter for me the day I left the office.”
The city’s conflict of interest code dictates when officials need to recuse themselves from decision-making due to financial interests. It doesn’t apply to past clients.
The State Bar of California, however, governs when lawyers should recuse themselves from representing past clients. Those rules say a lawyer shouldn’t represent someone who opposes their former client if the lawyer has obtained confidential information.
Hickey doesn’t think it’s a problem. It’s been a long time since the company was a client, and he doesn’t expect JMI try to make it an issue.
Gil Cabrera, one of Hickey’s opponents and former chairman of the city’s Ethics Commission, isn’t as certain.
When a rank-and-file attorney has a conflict, it’s easy enough to deal with: That attorney steps aside and her co-workers deal with it. She’s removed from the entire process. The office builds an “ethical wall” around her.
That’s harder to do when the elected city attorney has the conflict. In some cases, the entire city attorney’s office could be disqualified, and the city forced to hire outside counsel at taxpayer expense. Not only would it cost money, voters wouldn’t have the person they elected representing them.
“JMI would have a chance to disqualify the office,” Cabrera said. “Whether they’d be successful is something else. From an optics perspective, it sucks. But (Hickey) has the benefit of it being a long time since he represented them, which is helpful.”