By Alberto Garcia
Two-thirds of the members of the San Diego City Council accepted political campaign contributions from principals of the development company the City is suing to invalidate two controversial building leases over charges that the company paid hidden profit splits to the City’s own real estate advisor.
The City is currently locked up in lawsuits with Cisterra Development over the City’s lease for the abandoned 101 Ash Street building near City Hall, as well as for the Civic Center Plaza (CCP) building which houses several City departments, including the City Attorney’s office.
Cisterra’s two principal partners are Steven L. Black and Jason Wood.
Then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer stopped making the City’s nearly $545,000 monthly lease payments on 101 Ash Street in September 2020 after a taxpayer lawsuit was filed challenging the constitutionality of the leases because the City was paying for the building while it sat empty. The building was evacuated in January 2020 after the County Air Pollution Control District (APCD) deemed it to be a public nuisance due to exposed asbestos material in the air.
The City later filed separate lawsuits to invalidate the two leases after the City’s real estate broker Jason Hughes admitted he received over $9.4 million in profit splits from Cisterra for his help in convincing the City to enter into the two 20-year leases. Hughes had been serving as a special real estate advisor to the City since 2013.
Cisterra’s financiers have also sued the City to enforce the leases and demanding back rents owed since the City began withholding payments on both of the buildings.
Just two weeks ago, the Council voted to reinstate monthly rent payments on the CCP building while the lawsuit seeking to invalidate the lease is still pending. The City and Cisterra, its landlord under the lease, agreed to the payments to avoid the City being evicted from the building. The vote passed 8 to 1 with only Councilwoman Vivian Moreno voting against the arrangement.
Any legal settlements, direction to the City Attorney pertaining to the legal cases, or amendments or reinstatement of the leases with Cisterra would still have to be approved by a vote of the City Council.
But, while the City and Cisterra remain engaged in a legal battle, Councilmembers have accepted political contributions from principals of the company.
Official campaign finance reports filed with the San Diego City Clerk’s office reveal that Council President Dr. Jen Campbell, and Councilmembers Joe LaCava, Stephen Whitburn, Sean Elo-Rivera, Marni von Wilpert, and Raul Campillo have accepted campaign contributions from principals of Cisterra.
Council President Campbell received three contributions from Steven Black on May 22 of this year, including two $600 contributions for her upcoming 2022 re-election campaign, and a separate $600 contribution for her campaign to fight off a recall effort launched earlier this year. The recall proponents failed to gather the necessary signatures to force an election.
Dr. Campbell represents the 2nd District which encompasses the coastal areas from Point Loma to Pacific Beach, Clairemont, Linda Vista, and Midway. Campbell was elected in 2018 and will seek re-election next year.
All five of the new Councilmembers who were elected last year accepted contributions from Cisterra principals during or after their elections.
Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert received four contributions from principals of Cisterra, including individual $600 contributions into her election campaign committee from Steven Black and Jason Wood in October 2020 about two weeks before she won her election, as well as separate $600 contributions after the election from both Black and Wood for her Legal Defense Fund which paid legal fees for a lawsuit she faced when her opponent, Joe Leventhal, sued to challenge her ballot designation as a “prosecutor”.
Leventhal argued that von Wilpert, who had worked for the City Attorney’s office civil division up until her election last year, was not a prosecutor. A judge agreed and ruled that von Wilpert could only use her title as Deputy City Attorney, City of San Diego.
Leventhal did not receive any contributions from Cisterra’s principals.
Councilwoman von Wilpert represents the 5th District encompassing the communities of Black Mountain Ranch, Carmel Mountain Ranch, Miramar, Rancho Bernardo, Sabre Springs, San Pasqual, Scripps Ranch, and Torrey Highlands.
Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera received separate $600 contributions from Black and Wood just days after his November 2020 election. He represents the 9th District communities from Southcrest to Kensington, City Heights, Rolando, and the College area.
Councilman Raul Campillo, a lawyer who worked for the City Attorney’s office up until his election last year, received one $600 contribution from Steven Black on October 24, 2020, two weeks before he won his election. Noli Zosa, his opponent in the race, did not receive any contributions from Black or Wood.
Campillo represents the 7th District communities of Mission Valley, Serra Mesa, Tierrasanta, and San Carlos.
Councilman Joe LaCava received one contribution of $500 from Ruth Wood on December 17, 2020, five weeks after his election in November 2020. Ruth Wood, married to Jason Wood, listed her occupation as “Real Estate Development, Cisterra Development”.
LaCava represents the 1st District communities of La Jolla, University City, Torrey Pines, and Carmel Valley.
Councilman Stephen Whitburn received individual $600 contributions from both Black and Wood in August 2020 in the midsts of his campaign against Toni Duran. Duran did not receive any contributions from Cisterra’s principals.
Whitburn represents the 3rd District communities of Downtown, Little Italy, Mission Hills, North and South Park, Golden Hills, and Normal Heights.
The three other members of the City Council did not report campaign contributions from Cisterra.
Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe, first elected in 2018, opened her re-election committee in February of this year. Her latest report covering the period through June 30th did not include any contributions from anyone associated with Cisterra. Her next report is due in January 2022 for the period ending on December 31, 2021.
Montgomery Steep represents the 4th District areas of Paradise Hills, Encanto, Rolando Park, North Bay Terrace, and Skyline.
Councilwoman Vivian Moreno, also elected in 2018, recently opened her re-election committee in September 2021 and has not reported any contributions for the year. Her next report is due in January 2021.
Moreno represents the 8th District communities of San Ysidro, Otay Mesa, Nestor, Barrio Logan, Logan Heights, and Sherman Heights.
Councilman Chris Cate, the only Republican on the Council, will be termed out of office at the end of next year and has not raised money since his last election in 2018. Cate did not report any contributions from Cisterra principals in his previous campaigns.
Cate represents the 6th District communities of Kearney Mesa, Mira Mesa, Sorrento Valley, and Rancho Peñasquitos.