SAN DIEGO — Mayor Roger Hedgecock, a controversial politician who never lost an election during nine years in public life, on Wednesday was convicted of conspiring to accept illegal campaign donations to his 1983 mayoral race and falsifying financial disclosure statements to conceal the scheme.
The conviction will force Hedgecock to resign as mayor of California's second-largest city when Superior Court Judge William L. Todd Jr. sentences him on Nov. 6, according to City Atty. John W. Witt.
The mayor was released on his own recognizance after the verdicts were returned early Wednesday afternoon following 6 1/2 days of deliberations by the jury. Hedgecock was convicted on one count of conspiracy and 12 counts of perjury. He was acquitted of two other perjury charges and a misdemeanor count of conflict of interest.
Prosecutors said he faces a maximum of eight years in prison.
The jury decided that Hedgecock, in winning the mayor's office 2 1/2 years ago, conspired with three of his closest backers to evade the city's $250-per-person campaign contribution limit and other laws and to funnel tens of thousands of dollars in illegal contributions to his 1983 campaign through a political consulting firm owned by a close friend of the mayor.
Hedgecock was generally impassive as the verdicts were read, although at one point he closed his eyes and gently shook his head.
Longtime Hedgecock aide Kevin Sweeney, seated with the mayor's family in the front row, began to sob. Hedgecock's wife, Cindy, managed to hold her composure in the courtroom, but then fell sobbing into the arms of J. Michael McDade, for many years one of the mayor's closest friends and his former chief of staff.
At a brief news conference in his City Hall office shortly after the verdict, Hedgecock, a 39-year-old moderate Republican first elected to succeed Pete Wilson after Wilson's election to the U.S. Senate, thanked his family and friends for being "so supportive during this anguish in this time of our lives."
"There are no words that can express the sense of disappointment," said Hedgecock, whose first trial on the charges ended last February in a mistrial with the jury deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of conviction. Saying that he needed time to "regroup my thoughts," Hedgecock promised to make "a more extensive statement on a lot of very obvious questions in a day or two."
One of the most obvious unanswered questions is whether Hedgecock will attempt to fight to retain his office while he appeals the verdict, or resign. Among those calling for Hedgecock's immediate resignation was Bill Mitchell, the city councilman who holds the largely ceremonial post of deputy mayor and would become acting mayor if Hedgecock steps down.
Hedgecock's legal misfortune also activated the political ambitions of a handful of other local public figures. Within minutes of the verdict, Police Chief William Kolender and City Councilman Bill Cleator expressed interest in running for mayor if a special election is called by the City Council.
Other potential candidates include Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego), City Councilmen Mike Gotch and Ed Struiksma, and Maureen O'Connor, the former councilwoman who lost to Hedgecock in a 1983 campaign to fill the vacancy created when Wilson was elected to the U.S. Senate.
The council could appoint a successor, but that is considered unlikely.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles Wickersham, who prosecuted the case, described the verdict as "an excellent result . . . that delighted me."
'Just, Fair, True Result'
"I do feel sorry for (Hedgecock)," Wickersham said. "But I feel in my heart it was a just, fair, true result."
The mayor's attorney, Oscar Goodman, who presented no defense witnesses in the case, was unavailable for comment after the verdicts.
As the verdicts were read in court, most of the jurors sat solemnly with their eyes cast downward. One juror quietly wept, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief handed to her by one of the alternate jurors, while another juror's hands shook in her lap when she was asked to verbally affirm her votes on the 16 counts facing Hedgecock.
"It was a painful experience," said juror Karon Dyer, 46, of La Mesa, a project manager for a computer systems house. "It was nothing anyone enjoyed. But we did our job."
Jury foreman Richard Stark of San Diego, asked to explain what convinced the jury, said, "The tremendous cash flow, his house and everything."
In an interview, Stark said the jurors were simply determined not to become deadlocked, as had the panel in Hedgecock's first trial. "We didn't want that," the weary foreman said.
He said that at least two of the jurors believed as late as Sunday night--four days into their deliberations at Mission Valley's Hanalei Hotel--that Hedgecock was innocent. The pair changed their minds, Stark said, after a meticulous review of the stacks of evidence and the testimony of 61 witnesses.