Charges Dismissed for Five Former San Diego Pension Board Members

January 26, 2010 ( – In a unanimous decision, the California State Supreme Court dismissed criminal charges against five former members of the San Diego City Employees Retirement System board on Monday.

However, the court concluded that the case against former firefighters union leader Ronald Saathoff could go forward, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. The court ruled that Saathoff was in a different position than the other five because he secured an agreement with the city that allowed him to combine his salary as a union official with his city salary in order to calculate his ultimate retirement benefit, and because that benefit went only to Saathoff, there were enough questions about the deal to allow the case against him to go forward. Prosecutors said that move boosted Saathoff’s monthly pension by about $2,500, according to the news report.

Writing for the court, Justice Kathryn Werdegar said Cathy Lexin, John Torres, Mary Vattimo, and Sharon Wilkinson could not be prosecuted because their actions in 2002 were shielded by other provisions of the conflicts-of-interests law. The former pension officials were accused of violating state conflict-of-interest laws when they voted to boost retirement benefits for all city workers in 2002 while at the same time decreasing contributions into the city’s system (see High Court Hearing this Week on San Diego Pension Case).

The court noted that, among other things, the conflicts-of-interest law bars public officials from participating in contracts in which they have a personal financial stake. According to the Union-Tribune, Werdegar said that while the defendants did have a financial interest in the 2002 plan, it was the same interest held by the 20,000 other members of the retirement system, and that common interest does not pose the kind of conflict the law aims to address.

Saathoff, Webster and Lexin also face fraud charges in federal court. That case has been on hold, awaiting this ruling by the state high court, and one expected later this year by the U.S. Supreme Court on challenges to the federal fraud law.

In December, the pension benefit that allowed Saathoff to combine his union salary with his city salary for benefit calculation purposes was declared invalid by a state judge (see CA Judge Invalidates Union President Pension Benefit).