In a motion made public Tuesday and reported by The San Diego Union-Tribune, defense attorneys for the six former officials said San Diego residents could not possibly be fair jurors in a federal trial of former pension system board members.
“The newspaper coverage is so extensive I think it would be virtually impossible for 12 people to set aside the barrage of publicity and make a fair determination,” said Victor Sherman, attorney for defendant Ronald Saathoff, according to the news report. “Taxpayers in San Diego may just want to lash out without really thinking too much about it. It’s like a protest vote – I can’t blame anybody else so let me blame these people.”
Saathoff was one of the four former pension system executives in January were charged with wire fraud, mail fraud, and conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud in a 20-count indictment (See Five Indicted in San Diego City Pension Case ). Only three of them now face federal charges.
US District Judge Roger Benitez is supposed to consider this motion, which was made by three of the five defendants’ attorneys, next week. However granting a change of venue does not happen often – especially on the federal level – unless a judge finds a fair trial is impossible and that moving it to another court would change that.
The city’s $1.4 billion underfunded pension system is being investigated by the US Attorney’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the FBI and the City Attorney’s Office.
There is also a fear that the high number of political prosecutions that have been tried in the city has created an unfair environment, the newspaper reported. “There certainly has been a significant number of political prosecutions brought in San Diego in the past three years and the cumulative nature of those prosecutions could create a climate where a large number of prospective jurors are predisposed to believe political figures might be engaged in tomfoolery,” said criminal defense attorney Geoffrey Morrison.
The defendants are accused of depriving city residents and retirees of their right to honest services by conspiring to illegally increase their own retirement benefits in exchange for allowing the cash-strapped city to underfund the pension system. All have pleaded not guilty.
The three former pension system board members also face state charges for allegedly putting less money into the city’s retirement system in order in exchange for larger pensions (SeeSix ex-SD pension Officials Bound Over for Trial ). San Diego’s city council this week removed an ordinance that would have provided the board members with comprehensive legal counsel (See SD City Council Narrows Legal Defense Guarantee for Ex-Pension Execs ).
The city’s attorney, Michael Aguirre, also said on Wednesday that he plans to widen the civil suit even more, to include some former and current elected officials, which would tangle two of the city’s sitting council members – Toni Atkins and Jim Madaffer – in a suit, according to the Voice.
According to the newspaper, this shows a change in direction for Aguirre, who started with targeting only board members of the retirement system. He now has expanded the suit to include all who served as city employees prior to their stints in public office, claiming they stood to benefit from voting to increase employee benefits.