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The San Diego Unified School District said its chief administrative officer, José Betancourt, would not step down after pleading guilty to a federal misdemeanor today.
The former San Diego “Navy mayor” was ordered to pay a $15,000 fine and serve a year of parole for violating a federal law that forbids high-level government officials from lobbying their former employers for a year after leaving office.
Though one school board member has called on Betancourt to resign over the controversy, district spokeswoman Ursula Kroemer said the chief administrative officer has indicated his intention to stay on.
“What happens in his personal life is a different issue than his service to the district at this point,” she said.
In a statement released by the district, Betancourt said he accepted full responsibility for the controversy. In his plea agreement, Betancourt admitted that he had accepted a position at a firm that had plans to bid on a $300 million military contract less than two months after retiring from the Navy in 2005. According to court documents, Betancourt later submitted the bid on behalf of the firm, the Acela Group, though it was never considered after military officials became aware of his conflict of interest.
In his statement, Betancourt pointed out that the firm never profited from his work:
But actions have consequences. I respect the decision of the U.S. Attorney and will fully comply with the imposed sentence. This experience has reinforced one of life’s important lessons: Laws, rules and regulations exist for a reason. They must be adhered to by everyone. No one is above the law.
This misdemeanor carries a substantial fine. In addition, I owe the U.S. Navy, the school district and the people of San Diego an apology. My entire life has been devoted to public service and I’m deeply sorry I did not set a better example in this instance.
Betancourt agreed to plead guilty to the criminal charge before the San Diego U.S. Attorney’s Office had indicted him on any charges.
Several experts said it is unusual that the matter had been brought to the criminal courts because most federal conflict-of-interest law violations are usually addressed with a simple fine.
“I think this is a very, very unusual case,” said Bob Stern, president of the Center of Governmental Studies.
Charles LaBella, a defense lawyer and a former San Diego U.S. attorney, said prosecutors have discretion in how the prosecute such cases, though he said it would be very unusual for them to pursue criminal charges.
“Typically, there has to be egregious facts,” he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William P. Cole declined to discuss the facts of the case beyond those included in the plea agreement, saying the matter was taken very seriously because it involved a large contract and a senior military official.
Betancourt was hired by San Diego Unified in the fall of 2005, shortly after Superintendent Carl Cohn took the helm of the district. As the school system’s chief administrator, Betancourt oversees the district’s procurement operations.
School board member John de Beck called on Betancourt to step down Wednesday, saying the criminal matter made him unfit for the job. But Katherine Nakamura, the only other board member to return calls for comment, said the board should consider the issue privately.
“It’s unfortunate that other board members have chosen to try him in the press,” she said, adding that she was “very sad” about what has happened.