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Thursday, May 19, 2005 | The arraignment of six former and current trustees of San Diego’s public employee pension fund was postponed until next month by a Superior Court judge Wednesday.
Moments after Judge Michael D. Wellington, a county prosecutor and several of the defendants’ lawyers emerged from the judge’s chambers, Jerry Coughlan, the attorney for former pension board member and firefighters union president Ron Saathoff, requested the arraignment be continued until June 20 for a “variety of reasons.” He did not elaborate further.
Legal experts said a host of possibilities exist for why the defense wanted to push the arraignment back – for example, to accommodate attorneys’ schedules or to hash out the terms of the preliminary hearing – but that the decision to delay is insignificant to the case.
“What happened is not extraordinary,” said Mario Conte, a trial practice professor at California Western School of Law. “Somebody probably asked the judge to meet in the chamber to discuss the agreement instead of surprising him with the request in open court.
“Arraignments are very pro forma: You show up, you’re advised of your rights, and you go home,” said Shaun Martin, a law professor at University of San Diego School of Law. “Sometimes they want a delay to strike a deal, but that can happen after the arraignment too.”
Through April, the $384,000 in legal fees accrued by the six accused current and former trustees has been paid for by the pension system, said Paul Barnett, the assistant retirement administrator for the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System.
Saathoff, along with Cathy Lexin, the city’s former human resources director; Terri Webster, the city’s former acting auditor; Mary Vattimo, the city’s former treasurer; and city management analyst Sharon Wilkinson are former board members on the SDCERS board who received criminal charges. John Torres, a San Diego Police Department fingerprint technician, still sits as a pension trustee.
Court papers filed Tuesday accuse the board members of permitting the city to skip paying a fixed amount into the pension plan in 2002 after striking a deal promising them future retirement checks worth hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of dollars more per month.
Several members of the Municipal Employees Association, ranging from engineers to library workers, lined the courthouse hallways to cheer pension board members as they walked out, only to boo and heckle City Attorney Mike Aguirre when he walked past.
Aguirre has issued several reports alleging the trustees are among those to blame for the pension deficit, which is currently estimated to be between $1.37 billion and $2 billion. Aguirre has argued that the board’s actions and the benefits increases are illegal.
MEA president Judie Italiano defended the trustees to reporters.
“Every one of these people got the same pension increases as every other city employee,” said Italiano, whose union represents 6,000 white-collar workers.
She said the charges were part of a “witch hunt” for the pension problem’s source, and that other factors have contributed to the behemoth deficit.
“The city has not been making its payments because they don’t have the revenue,” Italiano said. “We have a low tax base here. That’s it, that’s the system.”
Ann Smith, an attorney for MEA, said the district attorney’s motivation was “satisfying the political outcry that someone needs to be hanging from their heads.”
Among the district attorney’s findings, the city’s agreement with the retirement board has increased:
– Saathoff’s monthly pension check by $2,530.23 to a total of $9,703.66.
– Torres’ retirement checks by $386.52 a month to a total of $4,016.81.
– Wilkinson’s checks to $5,096.26, a boost of $477.60 more per month.
– Lexin’s monthly retirement payout by $537.45 to a total of $5,636.06 a month if she retired at age 55.
– Vattimo’s retirement checks by $703.70 to $7,108.21 per month if she retired at age 55.
– Webster’s monthly check by $1,073.67 to $10,862.41 if she retired at age 55.
Vattimo has since received raises that have increased her retirement package.
Aguirre said he plans to ask the pension board during their monthly meeting Friday to discontinue the payments. Barnett said it would be the board’s discretion to do so, though no such motion has been placed on the agenda for Friday’s meeting.
Dumanis levied three criminal counts on each defendant, except Lexin, who was charged with one count. She did not take part in the board’s final vote to increase benefits. If convicted, each count is punishable by a maximum of three years in prison, Dumanis said.
City Hall in the last few weeks has been full of personnel shakeups, starting with Mayor Dick Murphy’s resignation April 25. City Manager Lamont Ewell put Webster on administrative leave last week. Lexin, Vattimo and Deputy City Manager Pat Frazier resigned from the city posts Monday. Murphy and Frazier have not been charged.
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