SAN DIEGO — Mayor Roger Hedgecock, who never lost an election during nine years in public life, was convicted Wednesday on 13 felony conspiracy and perjury counts, most charging that he accepted illegal donations in his 1983 mayoral race and falsified financial disclosure statements to conceal the scheme.
The decision by the eight-woman, four-man Superior Court jury apparently will cost Hedgecock the office that prosecutors charged he broke the law to win 2 1/2 years ago. To become mayor, the jury found, Hedgecock conspired with former J. David & Co. principals Nancy Hoover and J. David (Jerry) Dominelli to funnel tens of thousands of dollars in illegal contributions to his 1983 campaign through a political consulting firm owned by Tom Shepard, a close friend of the mayor.
City Atty. John W. Witt has said that Hedgecock would be forced to resign his office when Judge William L. Todd Jr. sentences him on Nov. 6--even if the mayor appeals the verdict, returned early Wednesday afternoon after 6 1/2 days of deliberations by the jury. Some lawyers, however, said Wednesday that they believe that Hedgecock might be able to challenge, on constitutional grounds, any effort to force him from office before conclusion of his appeals.
Hedgecock, who was acquitted on two felony perjury charges and a misdemeanor conflict-of-interest count, was generally impassive as the verdicts were read, though at one point he closed his eyes and gently shook his head. Hedgecock's wife and parents stared vacantly ahead while the verdicts were announced. One of the mayor's closest aides sobbed into his hands.
Each felony conviction carries a maximum penalty of four years' imprisonment, but with multiple counts the maximum sentence is eight years, according to prosecutors. The mayor was released on his own recognizance after the verdicts.
At a brief news conference in his City Hall office shortly after the verdict was announced, 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 in a mistrial last February with the jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of conviction. Saying that he needed time to "regroup my thoughts," Hedgecock, who also could lose his law license as a result of his conviction, promised to make "a more extensive statement on a lot of very obvious questions in a day or two."
One of the most obvious questions is whether Hedgecock will fight to retain his office or, as some San Diego politicians suggested after hearing the verdict, resign. Among those calling for Hedgecock's immediate resignation was Deputy Mayor Bill Mitchell, who would become acting mayor if Hedgecock stepped down.
Hedgecock's legal misfortune also activated the political ambitions of a handful of other local public figures. Within hours of the verdict, Police Chief William Kolender, Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego) and City Councilman Bill Cleator expressed interest in running for mayor if Hedgecock is removed from office and the City Council decides to schedule a special election instead of filling the vacancy through an appointment.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles Wickersham, whose job it was to prosecute one of the most publicized cases in local legal and political history, described the jury's verdict as "an excellent result . . . that delighted me."
"I do feel sorry for (Hedgecock)," Wickersham said. "But I feel in my heart it was a just, fair, true result."
Dist. Atty. Edwin Miller, whom Hedgecock accused of treating the case as a "political vendetta," admitted that he felt "vindicated" by the verdict, but added: "It's not easy to prosecute a popular elected public official. There's a certain amount of distaste in doing that. But . . . I was convinced at a certain point in time that it was necessary, come what may."
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 female juror quietly wept, wiping her eyes with a handerchief handed to her by an alternate jurors. Another juror's hands shook in her lap as she verbally affirmed, in a barely audible voice, her votes on the 16 counts facing Hedgecock.
"It was a painful experience," said juror Karon Dyer, a project manager for a computer systems house. "It was nothing anyone enjoyed. But we did our job."
Jury foreman Richard Stark, asked to explain what convinced the jury, said: "The tremendous cash flow; his house and everything." Stark, a vice president of Security Pacific Bank, added that the jurors were determined not to deadlock as the first jury had.