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DA Dismisses Charges Against Former Pension Board Members

— District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis today dismissed conflict-of-interest charges against six former San Diego pension board members.

Onetime San Diego City Employees' Retirement System board members Cathy Lexin, Mary Vattimo, Teresa Webster, Sharon Wilkinson, John Torres and Ronald Saathoff were charged by the District Attorney's Office in 2005 with violating government code 1090, which prohibits public officials from negotiating a contract in which they have a financial interest.

The California Supreme Court tossed out most of the case in January. The DA filed a request for a re-hearing but that was denied. Deputy District Attorney Steve Robinson says the office will abide by the court’s ruling even though the office doesn’t agree with it.

"It was our position it was wrong for a pension board trustee to agree to an illegal underfunding in return for the promise of increased retirement benefits for all of the active employees including themselves," he said.

In a statement, DA Dumanis said her office continues to believe in their position. "However, after years of litigation in the appellate courts, and eight years after the alleged conduct, it is time for this case to conclude," she said.

Criminal law specialist Michael Crowley says the state Supreme Court’s decision to throw out the case was correct. He says a lot of people serve on boards related to things in which they have an interest. Crowley says the DA’s office was wrong to prosecute the pension board members.

"Maybe they should have acted differently; maybe there should have been criticism, maybe there should have been some political action taken," he said. "But to use the criminal justice system, to me, is something that should never have been done."

Crowley says boards are designed to weigh the options and make a decision.

The state Supreme Court dismissed felony conflict-of-interest charges against five of the former pension board members, but ruled that the trial of Saathoff, the former firefighters union president, could proceed.

In the statement, the District Attorney's Office said the Supreme Court's ruling stopped it from proceeding with its case against five defendants and substantially undermined the case against Saathoff.

The charges stemmed from a decision in 2002 that permitted the city to contribute less into the pension system, while at the same time increasing retirement benefits.

The District Attorney's Office argued that the agreement violated the state's conflict-of-interest law because those who approved the deal stood to gain from it.

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