On Nov. 19, 2012, Cherie Aispuro sent Bruce Gibson the following email:
“I got your back BG.”
He replied, “I know you do.”
The brief exchange reveals a shared sense of dread, of huddling together against the coming maelstrom.
They knew the reckoning that was lurching down the pike toward them.
Two days earlier, Gibson, a San Luis Obispo County supervisor, had publicly acknowledged his long-term affair with Aispuro, who worked for him. It may have cost him his marriage, and it has clearly pummeled his reputation.
From the beginning, the generally astute Gibson sought to impose damage control, from orchestrating the timing of the news to trying to minimize its damage by portraying it as a private matter.
But this is the sort of scandal that, in politics, you cannot command (see Gingrich, Newt and Clinton, Bill, among many others).
Two months later, Gibson is still reeling politically. This is due in no small part to the fact that, after he and other county leaders exiled Aispuro to a different part of the county kingdom (the Clerk-Recorder’s Office) for six weeks, he brought her back to work in his office.
Her return has struck voters as a slap in the face almost as stinging as his initial offense of having an affair with an aide.
Whatever you think of the morality of the situation — and reactions have ranged from “don’t be such a prude” to “he should slink away in shame and take his hussy with him” — there is a larger question of whether he did anything illegal or inappropriate.
On the first matter, the county counsel, while hardly approving of the arrangement, said there was nothing illegal about it. Some residents have scoffed at that conclusion and asked, in vain, for an independent investigation.
On the second count — was his behavior inappropriate in a way that affected the performance of his duties — I and others at The Tribune sought to ferret out an answer by examining his emails over time.
Using information provided under the California Public Records Act, I looked at literally thousands of exchanges between Gibson and Aispuro in the first year of his tenure — 2007 — and the most recent year — 2012.
I tried to be an honest broker. With the gigantic volume of material available, one could, if one had a preconceived notion or an ax to grind or was simply unprincipled, manipulate the contents of the emails to make the pair look especially villainous or, by contrast, exemplary.
I tried to play it straight and be as objective as possible.
I found no smoking emails.
Three leitmotifs did shine through:
• First, the emails reveal a line of work that is mundane if not downright tedious.
• Second, Gibson relied heavily on Aispuro to carry out his duties as a North Coast supervisor.
• Third, there is, as mentioned, an informal tone to some of the emails, a warmth and affection that borders on flirtatiousness.
Ho-humIf the Gibson-Aispuro emails show one thing above all others, it is how humdrum running a government can be.
Exchange after exchange deals with scheduling appointments, getting back to constituents, seeking to clarify county regulations, and the like — the business of government, its raison d’être.
“The middle school is having (an) event,” one typical email from October reads, and neighbors “are wondering whether the potholes could be filled in.”
There are hundreds of exchanges such as this, from folks seeking to fix a one-time pothole problem to familiar, long-term issues.
There is, for example, much back and forth about the wretched condition of Highway 1 north of Cambria, raising money for the Cambria Library, dealing with the Los Osos sewer, and addressing former San Luis Obispo City Councilwoman Christine Mulholland’s ongoing complaints — complete with photographs — about her nemesis and neighbor, rancher Dan De Vaul.
Aispuro comes through as a trusted aide to Gibson, on matters small and large. He asks her to direct the pothole problem to the appropriate person, for example. But he also seeks her advice on weightier questions, such as seismic testing offshore of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
This part of the relationship should be no surprise to government watchers. Gibson’s predecessor, Shirley Bianchi, has said the relationship between the elected official and the aide at times can border on being co-county supervisors.
Seeking hanky-pankyNow, to the question that piques the prurient interests of those who like to catch their elected officials doing naughty things and who slaver for details.
Did these emails reveal anything inappropriate?
The answer is no, although if you were looking to create a rapid heartbeat for those who salivate for lascivious details, you probably could.
For example, this exchange takes place between Gibson and Aispuro the afternoon of Thursday, April 12, 2012:
Aispuro: “I just woke up. You wiped me out.”
Gibson: “Sorry to be so demanding! Perking up?”
Hubba hubba! That sounds juicy! Until you look at the context (I call context “the C word” — I’m a huge fan).
When you look at the timelines of the emails, it gets far less titillating and downright ambiguous.
The “you wiped me out” email, for example, was sent at 4:01 p.m. and was part of a series of emails on various work-related subjects that the pair exchanged during the day.
Gibson had emailed Aispuro about a vacation rental ordinance at 3:47 p.m. — 14 minutes before the “wiped me out” comment — and his “sorry to be so demanding” email was sent at 4:26 p.m. — 25 minutes later. She had emailed him about a business matter at 3:33 p.m.
I don’t want to get all CSI San Luis Obispo here; I am beginning to feel a bit sleazy and tabloid. My point is that you can’t plaster an exchange on a page sans context and pretend that it means anything.
Maybe Aispuro was “wiped out” from her job. Because she was emailing 10 minutes earlier, maybe she “just woke up” from a quick cat nap.
Or maybe I’m being hopelessly naïve, or giving way too much benefit of the doubt. Maybe, as I have been told, there is only one possible explanation for those phrases, and that explanation is salacious. I simply don’t know.
But here’s a more pertinent question: What difference does it make? Is it worthy of this Sherlock Holmes-ian inquiry?
On a less vulgar front, the pair did display considerable affection and familiarity in their various email exchanges.
“Is it still beautiful (outside)?” Aispuro emails Gibson from her office when he is out in the district. “No no don’t tell me.”
“You do realize I’m taking a lot of UV exposure,” he replies.
There’s a lot of this kind of boyfriend-girlfriend stuff, but so what?
Emails in the modern age are a dicey business, especially at work. It’s so easy to type in the offhand remark, the wisecrack, the casual aside.
I think it’s fair to say that all of us do it. I know I do, and if someone examined in detail, and took out of context, the stuff I have sent in a relaxed moment to my sons, my wife, my friends, I’d probably be homeless, unemployed and maybe in the slammer.
Nonetheless, government officials, Gibson included, must be careful to stay within the law and within the boundaries of ethical behavior.
Gibson’s troubles are far from over. There are still calls for his resignation, or for an independent investigation, and he could resign or decide not to run for re-election in 2014.
But whatever else you say about him, his politics, his morality or his job performance, this much is clear: There appears to be nothing in his emails that shows him crossing the lines of propriety.