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Report: 'Mistakes Made' in Sunroad Project

An internal probe turned up no evidence of illegal behavior at City Hall involving construction of an office tower near San Diego's Montgomery Field. But the report faults staffers for their handling

An internal probe turned up no evidence of illegal behavior at City Hall involving construction of an office tower near San Diego's Montgomery Field. But the report faults staffers for their handling of the project.

The deputy chief of San Diego's Office of Ethics and Integrity, who headed up the investigation, acknowledged that there were “failures in judgment'' and “mistakes made.''

But despite the shortcomings, there was “no evidence whatsoever found of conspiracy, fraud, corruption, illegal conduct or violation of any state or federal law or regulation,'' Jo Anne SawyerKnoll said.

The two-month investigation, which culminated with the release Thursday of a 40-page report, determined that city staffers largely ignored a determination by the Federal Aviation Administration that Sunroad Enterprises' 180-foot-tall building exceeds its safe height limit by 20 feet.

The report cites a lack of communication between the Development Services Department, city planning and airports staff, and it accuses the city of failing to avert construction on the building once it was made aware that it would rise above FAA limits.

The city attorney's office was also criticized for not providing a “sufficient level of counsel and advice'' to staff.

The FAA maintains that the structure located off state Route 163 in Kearny Mesa, at its current height, poses a hazard for pilots approaching the city-owned airport in inclement weather.

Last month, Mayor Jerry Sanders ordered all work stopped on the nearly complete building, months after concerns were first raised.

Sunroad has since agreed to lower the structure to a height acceptable to the FAA, but has not abandoned a lawsuit seeking $40 million in damages from the city.

The mayor called for an investigation last month, after City Attorney Michael Aguirre accused him of colluding with Sunroad owner Aaron Feldman, a campaign contributor, to amend a prior stop-work order that allowed construction on the building to proceed.

He also asked the state attorney general to conduct a parallel inquiry into Aguirre's charges of corruption.

SawyerKnoll said her investigation did not substantiate those charges.

“We found no improper influence by or of any city staff related to any staff actions which may have played a part in the Sunroad Centrum 12 building reaching an elevation in violation of the FAA regulation,'' she said.

Sanders was also absolved of an allegation by Aguirre that the loan of an executive from the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority to assist in the Sunroad issue was “unlawful.''

“The securing of the services of Ted Sexton by the mayor's office was not done to assist Sunroad Enterprises in evading FAA safety regulations,'' the report states.

Aguirre avoided a direct response to the findings.

“I am just not going to get into a debate about the details because I have made my views known,'' the city attorney said.

Twenty-two individuals were interviewed, including Sanders and high-level members of his staff, as part of the internal investigation, SawyerKnoll said. Nearly 12,000 e-mails and documents were also reviewed.

A retired FBI agent and a land use expert were retained to help in the investigation, which SawyerKnoll said cost about $25,000.

Sanders stopped short of expressing vindication, pointing out that the investigation revealed “holes'' in city controls.

“I am confident with respect to my personal conduct, the attorney general will eventually agree that I conducted myself ethically with regard to this matter,'' Sanders said at an afternoon news conference.

“But there is no denying, and this report makes it painfully obvious, that various processes failed us and poor judgment was the norm, rather than the exception, all along the way,'' he said.

Sanders said he accepts all of the report's findings.

“It's crystal clear that city government failed to head the warnings of the FAA and Caltrans in a timely manner, and more importantly do something about it,'' he said. “The report demonstrates that significant errors in judgment were made by city staff members.''

He also alleged that Sunroad acted “unscrupulously,'' and made a “conscious decision'' not to comply with the FAA.

“I feel taken in by what Sunroad has done,'' he said.

Patrick Gunn, an attorney for Sunroad, said he “disagrees quite strongly'' with Sanders' allegations, but declined further comment because of the pending litigation.

“It won't be productive or helpful to comment,'' he said.

Sunroad officials have previously said the project received all the necessary approvals and permits from the city. They said the company is a responsible corporate citizen that would never construct a building that posed a hazard to pilots or the general public.

The company has been given until October to lower the height of the building.