San Diego City Atty. John Witt's office has decided not to prosecute former Councilwoman Linda Bernhardt for allegedly violating a city ordinance that prohibits having outstanding campaign debts of more than 30 days.
Chief Deputy City Atty. Sue Heath said Friday that Witt's office decided against prosecution because of the vagueness of the ordinance and because Bernhardt's removal from office in an April recall election made the issue moot.
"We're not going to prosecute, partly because the code is not clear as to the timing or to whom it applies and partly because she's already been removed from office," Heath said.
Witt's decision apparently ends prosecutors' interest in allegations of wrongdoing that dogged Bernhardt throughout the recall campaign, charges that she repeatedly claimed were unfounded and planted by enemies to embarrass her politically.
Witt will, however, refer two charges of potential conflict of interest against Bernhardt to the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
District Atty. Edwin Miller last month cleared Bernhardt of six charges, saying that his office had not "developed sufficient evidence" to charge her with any felony. The allegations included claims that Bernhardt consultants and staff members extracted campaign contributions in return for access to her, and that her campaign accepted an illegal extension of credit from a Glendale printing house.
A city ordinance requires political candidates to pay off debts within 30 days after an election or face misdemeanor charges that could result in a fine, a jail term and expulsion from office. Bernhardt, who maintains that the law is unconstitutional and unenforceable, ran up a debt of nearly $156,000 in her upset 1989 victory over incumbent Councilman Ed Struiksma.
She has paid off about $50,000 of the debt, which includes a sizable loan to herself, said Rick Taylor, Bernhardt's former campaign consultant. Bernhardt could not be reached for comment Friday.
Other candidates have committed the same offense, however, without facing review by Witt's office. Bob Trettin, who lost a 1989 council race to incumbent Abbe Wolfsheimer, still owes $34,000 in campaign debts, and makes monthly payments to his creditors, he said Friday.
Trettin was embroiled in the bitter Bernhardt recall campaign as consultant to the committee that succeeded in ousting Bernhardt from office.
Heath said the city ordinance offers no specifics on whether candidates should be charged for each day they owe money beyond the 30-day limit. It also does not address whether it is targeted at the individual extending credit or whether it is aimed solely at candidates.
Changes were recommended by task forces in 1981 and 1986 but not adopted by the City Council. This week, Witt told the council that he will convene another committee to again propose amendments to the election ordinance.