Skip to comments.CA: Federal judge delays trial in S.D. pension case until May
Posted on 08/31/2006 11:39:28 AM PDT by NormsRevenge
The judge in the federal pension fraud case has postponed the February trial date until May 15, 2007, after defense attorneys requested more time to prepare.
U.S. District Judge Roger T. Benitez said the delay was reasonable because of the complex nature of the case, which involves five defendants and more than a million pages of documents, and because one of the defense attorneys has just been retained eight months after indictments.
The government did not oppose the delay. Defense attorney Michael Pancer was hired this month by Loraine Chapin after her previous lawyer was disqualified by Benitez over fears of a potential conflict of interest.
Chapin and four other former San Diego city pension officials were indicted Jan. 6 on fraud and conspiracy charges. Besides Chapin, the defendants are Ronald Saathoff, the firefighters union chief and former pension trustee; Cathy Lexin, former city of San Diego human resources director; Lawrence Grissom, former pension fund administrator; and Teresa Webster, former assistant city auditor.
All have pleaded not guilty. The indictment says the defendants deprived citizens and pensioners of their right to honest services by conspiring to illegally obtain enhanced retirement benefits for themselves in exchange for allowing the financially strapped city to underfund the pension system, which now has a $1.43 billion deficit.
Defense lawyers have said the enhanced benefits and the underfunding were not linked, and that votes for benefits took place months before the votes to allow underfunding. Also, defendants believed that by allowing the city to delay full funding of the pension system, they were preventing layoffs and helping the city.
The case has been stalled for months while defendants tried to hire and pay for lawyers who the government would not oppose. Finding prominent lawyers who were not already connected to the far-reaching case has been challenging for the accused.
Pancer is Chapin's fourth lawyer. The government has successfully ousted two of her attorneys of choice and has indicated potential problems with Pancer as well.
Former San Diego U.S. Attorney Charles La Bella left the case after the government raised concerns that La Bella had represented a potential witness; Michael Attanasio was disqualified because he previously represented the city on pension-related civil and criminal investigations.
The government has recently raised similar concerns about Pancer because of his prior representation of two potential witnesses in the case Ann Smith, legal counsel for the Municipal Employees Association, and former City Councilman Ralph Inzunza.
The government stopped short of calling for Pancer's ouster, but asked a judge to look into the matter and make sure Chapin, Smith and Inzunza understand the potential conflicts and are willing to waive them.
Pancer said yesterday the conflict issues have been resolved and the waivers have been signed. Defense lawyers have asked the prosecution to speed the preparation process by pinpointing the evidence they plan to use at trial.
I'm hopeful we can work out these discovery issues so the trial date set by the court can be easily met by all parties, and I'm confident we can do that, Pancer said.
Besides targeting Chapin's lawyers, prosecutors also had urged the judge to disqualify Saathoff's first attorney, Jerry Coughlan, saying he had a conflict of interest. Coughlan left the case before the judge ruled.
Benitez set the next hearings for Oct. 18, Feb. 6 and April 30.
Among the issues Benitez will consider at those hearings: The defense has asked the judge to move the trial out of San Diego, saying publicity has made it impossible to seat an impartial jury. And, defense attorneys are also likely to ask the judge for separate trials, rather than one for all five defendants.
Can hardly wait for the judges and the bureaucrats to be able to declare all pensions in this case null and void. That way they cna spend money to build the Chargers a new stadium!
Just don't hold your breath. The unions will litigate until the end of time to keep those benefits.