A former Bell Gardens city manager who violated conflict-of-interest laws by engineering her appointment while serving on the City Council must repay her entire city manager salary, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled Friday.
Judge Drew Edwards made the ruling, which will cost Maria S. Chacon more than $85,000, after prosecutor Juliet Schmidt said the city needed to be “made whole.”
Chacon pled no contest in August and was placed on probation, with conditions including restitution and 150 hours of community service. The case was filed in 2001, but was delayed by appeals after another judge ruled that Chacon could present an “entrapment by estoppel” defense based on advice by the city attorney.
A unanimous California Supreme Court—affirming a 2004 ruling by this district’s Court of Appeal—ruled earlier this year that such a defense is not available to a public official who is supposed to know the laws, particularly where the advice comes from an official—such as a general law city attorney—who has no authority to enforce criminal laws and may owe a duty of loyalty to the official seeking the advice.
The Chacon case was prosecuted by the Public Integrity Division of the District Attorney’s Office and “was the first major public integrity case brought by PID,” District Attorney Steve Cooley said Friday in a statement.
“The citizens of Bell Gardens have received justice,” Cooley said. “And the long appellate trail of the case up to the California Supreme Court gives prosecutors statewide direction in pursuing corrupt public officials.”
Chacon was convicted of a felony under Government Code Sec. 1090, which makes it a crime for a public official to participate in the making of a contract in which the official has or expects a financial interest.
Chacon was charged with conspiring with other council members to repeal an ordinance barring council members from accepting the post of city manager until they had been off the council for a year.
The ordinance was repealed in October of 2000, with Chacon joining her colleagues in voting in favor of the repeal, and Chacon accepted the city manager job in December of that year.
She held the job for just a few months before being charged with violating Sec. 1090, placed on administrative leave by the council, and eventually fired.
Before trial, her lawyers said she would present testimony that then-City Attorney Arnoldo Beltran proposed eliminating the existing ordinance, drafted the repeal, and drafted the contract hiring her as city manager. Her due process rights under the U.S. Constitution would be violated if she could be prosecuted for relying on Beltran’s advice, she contended.
Judge Michael M. Johnson ruled that, if the evidence warranted it, Chacon would be entitled to an instruction that she could not be convicted if she acted in reliance on advice from Beltran.
Johnson said he was bound to follow Cox v. Louisiana (1965) 379 U.S. 559. Cox held that demonstrators could not be prosecuted for picketing “near” a courthouse after the police chief and city officials told them it would be legal to do so across the street.
The Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, however, distinguished those cases, noting that the demonstrators in Cox were private citizens rather than public officials, and that the officials whose advice they relied on had the authority to enforce criminal laws.
Allowing public officials to assert a defense to conflict of interest charges “by claiming reliance on the advice of public attorneys charged with counseling them and advocating on their behalf,” Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for the Supreme Court, “is antithetical to the strong public policy of strict enforcement of conflict of interest statutes and the attendant personal responsibility demanded of our officials.”