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San Diego City Hall Probes Permit for Blackwater Facility

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

Recent news that Blackwater Worldwide planned to open a Navy training center in Otay Mesa caught almost everybody off-guard. Some say the company used stealth tactics to get permits after it was forced to withdraw from a controversial military training project in East County. But Blackwater says it never hid its plans. And now city hall is trying to figure out the truth. KPBS Reporter Amita Sharma has more.

Broughton: We have no official application from a company named Blackwater.

In fact, San Diego's development services director Kelly Broughton says he didn't find out Blackwater wanted to set up an indoor training center for sailors at an Otay Mesa warehouse until he got a call from a news reporter last month. He's not surprised he didn't know.

Broughton: Generally owners of buildings or tenants of buildings who are coming into apply for permits, pick those organizations or companies that are best able to get through the permit process.

In the case of Blackwater, the company used the name of affiliate Southwest Law Enforcement when it first applied for a city permit. On the second permit application, SAF Child Investments -- the owner of the building -- is listed as the applicant. And the third permit names another Blackwater affiliate Raven Development.

Blackwater's Brian Bonfiglio denies the company's use of three different affiliate names was meant to deceive.

Bonfiglio: The names we used on this were the exact same names we used for two years on working on the other project in Potrero. The county required a project name for their file. So it was Blackwater West.

Real estate consultant Jason Luker says there's a reason corporations use the names of subcontractors. It's a layer of insulation from litigation.

Luker: They do that to shield the corporate entity from legal risk, from financial risk. A lot of lenders won't lend on a specific project unless they are shielded from the parent corporations it's a standard business practice.

But San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre says in this instance that explanation is irrelevant.

Aguirre: You can't sneak in the back door and then make use of the general practices and procedures as a justification for doing something really in this particular situation may not be permissible."

Blackwater plans to teach sailors at the Otay facility how to fend off terrorist attacks at a ship simulator and a firing range such as this one on a company training video. But Blackwater's affiliates didn't mention the firing range until its third application for a permit. All of the permits it received were ministerial which didn't require city council approval or public input. And Aguirre says that fire range requires a more rigorous review process and an environmental study.

Aguirre: The fact that there are going to be hazardous materials, firearms and other instrumentalities associated with war-related activity may trigger a requirement that before that use can be adapted that the whole plan has to go before the city council.

Earlier this month, the Mayor Jerry Sanders launched an inquiry into how Blackwater obtained its permits. One issue under review is why the development services department classified the company's navy training center as a trade school. David Potter is a former planner with the city. He says no city rules exist that would exclude the project from operating as a trade school.

Potter: The zone clearly allows that but doesn't define what it is….so I would say this qualifies as vocational training.

And that's why development services director Broughton says even if Blackwater had been listed on the permit applications, his staff wouldn't have done anything differently.

Broughton: I don't see that I would have had any other choice but to approve it because it complied with our municipal code and the California Building Code.

Blackwater's Bonfiglio says he already has his occupancy permit for the site. But last week, on the advice of the Aguirre the mayor ordered Blackwater to stop work on the facility. A spokesman said Sanders may reconsider his decision once his investigation is complete this Friday.

Amita Sharma, KPBS News.

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