Friday, May 1, 2009 | Former Centre City Development Corp. President Nancy Graham pleaded no contest Friday to a misdemeanor charge of failing to properly disclose her economic interests while at CCDC, the city’s nonprofit redevelopment agency.
As part of the plea agreement reached with the City Attorney’s Office, Graham agreed to pay $3,300 in fines and penalties and to refrain from seeking elected office or working as a lobbyist in California for three years. The charge carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail.
Graham did not appear in San Diego Superior Court, but made the plea through her attorney, Paul Pfingst. A no-contest plea is not an admission of guilt but is treated like a conviction.
Last year, then-City Attorney Mike Aguirre filed five misdemeanor ethics and conflict-of-interest charges against Graham, who resigned from her CCDC post in July.
Before moving to San Diego in 2005, Graham worked as a developer in Florida, where she had a business relationship with Lennar Corp. and the Related Group, a large Florida development company. Together, they built a mixed-use condominium project, a partnership that Graham estimated had paid her almost $3 million as of 2007 — including a $125,000 payment that came in mid-2007, while she was at CCDC.
Graham did not report that income on the annual conflict-of-interest form that public officials are required to submit to the city. CCDC’s conflict-of-interest code requires the agency’s president to disclose all income from companies doing development downtown.
While at CCDC, Graham participated in numerous negotiations over Ballpark Village, a $1.4 billion development proposed adjacent to Petco Park. Lennar partly owns the underlying 7.1 acres on which development would occur.
She also participated in negotiations over a $409 million condo and hotel project proposed by the Related Cos., which is a minority owner of The Related Group, Graham’s business partner. That project was subsequently killed after a CCDC investigation found that Graham had acted with a conflict of interest and tainted the developer-selection process.
As part of the plea agreement, the City Attorney’s Office filed an amended complaint today charging Graham with one count of failing to report economic interests that the city’s conflict-of-interest code required she disclose. That replaced the previous complaint charging Graham with five counts.
Pfingst said Graham continues to deny that she has done anything improper but agreed to a plea to avoid the cost of a trial. He noted that Graham would have had difficulty calling witnesses from New York and Florida to rebut the charges.
Deputy City Attorney Michael Rivo referred questions to Gina Coburn, a spokeswoman for City Attorney Jan Goldsmith. In a written statement, Coburn said the office was “pleased with the result” of the case.
“The taxpayers of San Diego spent a considerable amount of money beginning last fall investigating this matter,” Coburn wrote. “In the end, Ms. Graham pled to what we believe we could have proven at trial after considerably more expense — she failed to make a required disclosure. Through this plea agreement, the City enforced our disclosure law and avoided what would have been an expensive and lengthy trial. “
She said the resolution of the case wouldn’t affect other agencies’ investigations or proceedings. Coburn declined to answer questions about whether a federal investigation into Graham drove the city attorney’s decision to reach a plea agreement or whether city prosecutors had been in contact with federal prosecutors.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department’s public integrity section in Washington, D.C., subpoenaed extensive records from CCDC relating to Graham’s employment and involvement with Ballpark Village and 7th and Market.
“If the feds are already investigating, they’ll go ahead with whatever they want despite what happens on the state (court) side,” said Mario Conte, a federal defender and law professor at California Western School of Law. “The state can’t bind the feds.”
Charles La Bella, a former U.S. attorney, said local and federal prosecutors typically discuss which office should advance with a prosecution so as to not waste resources investigating the same thing.
“Whether or not the government is going to do anything is usually a conversation between the two offices,” La Bella said. “They usually don’t waste resources investigating the same thing.”
That doesn’t always happen, Conte said. Look no further than the prosecutions of former city pension officials by both the district attorney and U.S. attorney.
“Sometimes there is disagreement and a turf war that goes on,” Conte said. “Sometimes I suspect they don’t cooperate because each one wants to get a piece of that particular action.”