When Paul Pfingst was running for San Diego County district attorney, he was lionized by the media as the relentless and resourceful prosecutor in San Diego’s most infamous murder case.
After another prosecutor had failed to get a conviction, Pfingst had taken over the second trial and convicted a California Highway Patrol officer for the strangling of a young woman. As a candidate, Pfingst used heart-rending pictures of the woman and her killer in his television commercials.
The articulate, forceful Pfingst also had an appealing political message: that the six-term incumbent, Edwin L. Miller Jr., the dean of California district attorneys, had grown arrogant in office and no longer thought of himself as accountable to the public.
Pfingst, who had left the D.A.'s office in 1988 to enter civil practice, eliminated Miller in the June primary and breezed past his runoff opponent in November, a Municipal Court judge he had slammed as just another career politician.
But just weeks after taking office, the 43-year-old prosecutor with the earnest, open manner is embroiled in an ethics controversy that has even some of his most ardent supporters saying he has made a major mistake and tarnished his reputation.
In an effort to beat Judge Larry Stirling, Pfingst admittedly ran up $70,000 in campaign debts that he could not pay--this despite a county campaign ordinance that is meant to prohibit deficit campaign spending and sets the penalty as a misdemeanor punishable by jail time and a fine.
Pfingst insists he has done nothing illegal and, indeed, prosecutors in the San Diego city attorney’s office, which oversees district attorney elections, agree with him.
Still, Pfingst’s deficit campaign has kicked up a local political tempest, possibly because it seems to violate the high standards that some in San Diego public life think should apply to a district attorney.
“I thought Pfingst was the white knight on horseback, the logical successor to Miller,” said Charles Ross, chairman of an ethics advisory board appointed by then-San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor in 1992 to suggest ways to tighten the city’s campaign laws. “It is very disturbing to see that he has such a disregard for campaign law.”
Faced with his first controversy in office, Pfingst’s explanations for his deficit campaigning have struck some as overly legalistic and at odds with his reputation for candor.
Pfingst has argued to reporters that the county ordinance never mentions debt but rather bans extensions of credit--that is, formal agreements from creditors to delay seeking payment beyond 30 days.
Since the people to whom he owes money have neither offered nor been asked for extensions of credit, Pfingst insists that he has not violated the law, even if the law was aimed at eliminating deficit campaigning.
“I cannot engage myself in colloquial interpretations to satisfy a political sense out here,” Pfingst said. “I have to engage myself in legal interpretations, and my legal interpretation of this is correct, and no one has argued with it.”
The law cited by Pfingst was adopted by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and applies to the district attorney and other countywide elected officials.
A similar law adopted earlier by the San Diego City Council, and used as a model for the county law, was amended last year by the council to clarify the intent of the original authors. The amendment says that any candidate not paying bills promptly, even without a formal extension of credit, is in violation.
So far, however, the county supervisors have not adopted a similar clarifying amendment for the county law.
The prospect of the county’s top prosecutor being in possible violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of a key provision of the campaign laws has proved unsettling.
The San Diego Union-Tribune, whose editorial page support for Pfingst’s candidacy had been lavish, editorialized that he had “stumbled badly out of the gate” and that his “lawyerly rationale” was not persuasive. KNSD-TV, the NBC affiliate in San Diego, which had also endorsed Pfingst, called for him to apologize to voters.
“If the district attorney won’t follow the law himself, how can he be expected to enforce it on others?” said Ross.
One reason the issue of Pfingst’s campaign debt has resonated in San Diego may be that public activists have long boasted that the city known locally as “America’s Finest City” has some of the toughest clean-campaigning laws in the nation.
Ironically, in the same week that Pfingst was answering reporters’ questions about whether his $70,000 campaign debt violates the law, the Deputy District Attorneys Assn., whose members work for Pfingst, issued a statement in the context of a labor-management dispute with the county supervisors noting that San Diego prosecutors “have led the nation in the enforcement of political crimes.”
Although sticking with his legal interpretation, Pfingst conceded that as someone who moved to San Diego County only 11 years ago, he may not yet understand the local preoccupation with such things as campaign financing laws.
“There is an emotionality about this on the part of some people that I find hard to understand,” he said.
Last week, to help pay his debts, Pfingst held a fund-raising cocktail party and dinner at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in San Diego. In attendance were deputy prosecutors from Pfingst’s office, criminal defense lawyers, bail bondsmen, and assorted political consultants and activists, among others.
It was the kind of post-election fund-raising that the no-deficit ordinance, according to those who helped frame it, was meant to eliminate because of the appearance of coercion when a newly elected officeholder solicits donations from his own employees and those who might have dealings with the office.
“When you win, you suddenly have a lot of new best friends,” said Casey Gwinn, a deputy San Diego city attorney who ran for district attorney but was eliminated in the primary.
Gwinn, who also has unpaid bills from the D.A.'s race, not only attended the Pfingst fund-raiser but also was on the host committee.
Also on the committee, and seated in a place of prominence at the dinner, was Roger Hedgecock, the city’s leading radio talk show host, who was ousted as mayor in 1985 when convicted of conspiracy and perjury charges brought by Pfingst’s predecessor, Miller.
(On appeal, the California Supreme Court sent the case back for retrial because of a disputed jury instruction by the judge. In a plea bargain, Hedgecock dropped any further appeals on his conspiracy conviction in exchange for the conviction being reduced to a misdemeanor and later erased from his record).
While unstinting in his attacks on Miller, Hedgecock has treated Pfingst favorably on his radio show. Two of Pfingst’s top political consultants--to whom he still owes money--were insiders in Hedgecock’s 1983 mayoral campaign, the one that spawned criminal charges that drove him from office.
At issue in the flap over Pfingst’s deficit campaigning is a county ordinance adopted in the wake of two scandals in the early 1970s: the bankruptcy and indictment of San Diego’s leading banker and Republican powerhouse, C. Arnholt Smith, and the indictment of four members of the City Council for allegedly taking bribes from the Yellow Cab Co. in exchange for a rate increase.
Both events have shaped San Diego politics for a generation; one byproduct was the election of a reformist mayor, Pete Wilson.
The goal of the no-deficit ordinance--passed by the City Council and later by the Board of Supervisors and several suburban cities--was to decrease the influence of money on elections.
The no-deficit provision, meant to require that all bills be paid within 30 days, was part of an overall reform movement, which included limits on individual contributions, a ban on group contributions and strict disclosure rules.
The City Council in the 1970s, led by Wilson, was so eager to make San Diego a leader in political reform that it mandated the removal from office of any politician found guilty of violating the election code, including the no-deficit financing rule. The county penalty was less severe.
In the 1980s, as the cost of campaigns spiraled and highly paid consultants were hired, candidates began to break the no-deficit financing rule with impunity. A number of candidates, including San Diego Mayor Susan Golding and newly elected Sheriff Bill Kolender, have ended their campaigns with unpaid bills but have not faced prosecution.
Deputy San Diego City Atty. William Newsome, whose duties cover political corruption cases, including any involving the district attorney, said that unpaid bills alone are not enough to warrant criminal charges. There must also be proof that an officeholder used his position to do a favor for a creditor in lieu of payment.
The philosophy of the campaign reform laws, Newsome said, is to eliminate the undue influence of money on governmental decisions, not just to require fast payment of campaign bills.