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State court dismisses charges for five of six in SD pension case

The state Supreme Court on Monday dismissed felony conflict-of-interest charges against five ex-San Diego pension board members, but ruled that the trial of former firefighters union president Ronald Saathoff should proceed.

Former San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System board members Cathy Lexin, Mary Vattimo, Teresa Webster, Sharon Wilkinson, John Torres and Saathoff were charged by the District Attorney’s Office in 2005 with violating government code 1090, the state’s conflict-of-interest law.

The law prohibits public officials from negotiating a contract in which they have a financial interest.

“We respect today’s decision by the California Supreme Court,’' said District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. “We will continue to aggressively pursue conflict-of-interest matters within our community, as honest and open government are essential qualities which must be vigilantly maintained.”

The District Attorney’s Office accused the six of authorizing a 2002 agreement that granted increased retirement benefits in exchange for decreased contributions by the city into the retirement system. Because they were city employees, the pension board members stood to gain from the improved retirement benefits, prosecutors alleged.

In its unanimous ruling, the state’s high court found that Lexin, Vattimo, Webster, Wilkinson and Torres were “not burdened by a conflict of the sort section 1090 prohibits.”

“Rather, by intentional legislative design, many of the board’s trustees were members of the retirement system and thus had interests in common with the membership as a whole,” and the defendants’ financial interest in the agreement was a “consequence of this fact,” the ruling states.

However, the justices found that Saathoff uniquely benefited from the deal because it allowed him to combine his salary as president of the firefighters union with his city pay for the purpose of calculating his retirement benefits.

Saathoff “obtained a unique, personalized pension benefit as a result of voting to approve the retirement board’s contract with the city,” the ruling states.

No date has been set for Saathoff’s trial.