What began as back-room wheeling and dealing at San Diego’s City Hall has now gotten messy enough to become – at least potentially -- a "federal case."
At issue, apparently: Did Mayor Bob Filner and/or members of his staff break the law in connection with a six-figure donation from real estate developers?
In a front-page story Thursday, U-T San Diego reported that the FBI "has visited more than one city official" while looking into how Sunroad Enterprises got a special treatment for a big apartment complex that’s in its final build-out phases in Kearny Mesa.
The intrigue involves city property on two sides of Centrum Park, two acres of grassland and playground structures on Lightwave Avenue surrounded by swank townhouses and construction sites for hundreds of apartment units to the north and south.
Many neighbors of the park are only now becoming aware of the land-use controversy in their midst, and wonder if it might reach scandal proportions now that the U.S. Justice Dept. is reported to be investigating.
“It could be a little embarrassing for the city if it gets that big,” said Jason Boutwell, interviewed Thursday while walking his Australian sheepdog and cattle dog in the park. “I think it would be in their best interest to clear it up as soon as possible.”
The back story?
It seems Sunroad’s building project encroached deep into 15 feet of required setback, or separation, from the public park property.
The firm came to the city for an easement to make that legal.
A few years ago, Sunroad had a similar problem with a too-tall office tower nearby -- and, after ugly legal battles, had to lop off two stories.
To residents in the Spectrum neighborhoods of Kearny Mesa, the park situation is an eerie case of deja vu.
"It's pretty strange,” said Derek Blattner, as he stopped to chat Thursday on his way out of Centrum Park, pulling his young son in a wagon. “You'd think, maybe there's a lack of foresight into building. I just don't know. Or developers think they can just get away with whatever they want."
The easement was approved by the City Council, but vetoed by Mayor Filner.
He told reporters last week that Sunroad approached him to back off.
His answer: "Well, you know, you're getting free stuff from the city here. Why should I do that?' And they said, 'What if we made some donation to some city efforts?’"
That's where things 'went south', as recent events indicate -- and Centrum Park became the visual epicenter of rumblings about "shakedowns", "extortion", "quid pro quo".
One hundred thousand dollars in checks from Sunroad to the city have since returned by the mayor, who wanted to steer them to a veterans memorial and cycling event.
Where does that leave the easement? Does it become a civic gift to Sunroad?
Filner’s departed deputy chief of staff, who handled the arrangements, has told Voice of San Diego that Sunroad’s project would take a $200,000 hit without the easement – and that he persuaded the mayor to accept $100,000 in compensation to the city for granting it.
Meantime, miles away in Rolando, the developer of a multi-unit complex called Centerpoint have paid the city $150,000 to settle a lawsuit over Filner's voiding of its permits, in response to community opposition.
Folks visiting Centrum Park Thursday expressed hope that the financial outcome there favors them, and taxpayers in general.
Said Hector Rolando, taking a break from mentoring his young daughter in martial arts moves: "Maybe if they take this money and put more things in the park for the kids and people to benefit from, that wouldn't be so much of a problem. But if nothing has been done and the money's gone -- that is the problem."
This, from Jason Boutwell: "With any real estate, there's got to be money that's got to be exchanged. People don't just give things away for free, so that's how I look at it. I wouldn't expect anybody to give me something for free -- especially land. Especially here."
NBC 7 has reached out to the various players and 'parties in interest' in all this – receiving only “no-comment” replies or nothing in response.
Over the past decade, federal prosecutors have had mixed results pressing corruption cases involving city officials.
Sections and interpretations of the federal Hobbs Act cited by U-T San Diego cast a harsh light on Filner’s role in the Sunroad transaction.
But judges in the criminal cases stemming from the Cheetah’s strip club scandal and city pension debacle took different views of the ‘controlling’ statutes and behavior in question than Justice Department officials did.