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Golding Innocent, Prosecutor Says

San Diego: District attorney moves to dismiss grand jury's misconduct charges against the mayor.

July 21, 1999|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst moved Tuesday to dismiss a civil misconduct charge filed by the county grand jury against Mayor Susan Golding stemming from her campaign to build a downtown baseball park to keep the Padres from leaving San Diego.

"If the mayor had done something that would require her removal from office, I would have prosecuted her in a New York minute," Pfingst said. "She didn't."

If brought to trial and convicted, Golding could have been dismissed from office.

But in a sharp rebuke to the grand jury, Pfingst said the jury's action, taken without seeking legal advice from his office, was both contrary to law and not supported by the facts. Pfingst's request that the case against the mayor be dropped will be considered Thursday by Presiding Judge Wayne Peterson.

"I'm pleased that the district attorney has arrived at a conclusion that I am factually innocent," said Golding, a two-term Republican. "It is not pleasant to be accused of something you didn't do."

Peter DiRenza, the retired Army counterintelligence officer who served as foreman of the 1998-99 grand jury, was neither surprised nor chagrined at Pfingst's action, which had been widely anticipated in legal and political circles.

"I'm not going to sing the blues over this," DiRenza said. "The grand jury did its job. We're proud of what we did, but we're out of the loop now. It was up to Paul Pfingst to carry the case from here."

The grand jury had invoked a little-known section of state law allowing it to level civil charges of misconduct against an elected official for actions that, while not criminal, are considered by jury members so damaging to the public interest that the official should be removed from office.

While the jury, whose 19 members are volunteers, can level such charges on its own, the district attorney must determine whether the case merits being taken to trial. Pfingst, after reviewing 2,000 pages of documents, concluded that Golding is "factually innocent."

The jury had alleged that Golding cut a back-room deal with the San Diego County Hotel-Motel Assn. to win the group's support of Proposition C on the November 1998 ballot. The measure, approved by a 60%-to-40% margin, calls for the city to pay 70% of the $411-million cost of building a ballpark on the eastern edge of downtown.

The jury alleged that a deal was struck in October 1998 for the association to receive a boost from the City Council in its marketing budget in exchange for supporting the proposition.

But Pfingst noted that the group had declared its unconditional support of the measure at an open council session in July 1998, and that at the same meeting, council members said that boosting the marketing budget for the association was an integral part of the ballpark financing plan. The city's portion of the construction cost is to come from taxes assessed to hotel-motel users.

The session was broadcast on the city's cable television channel and covered by newspapers and TV news shows. A video of the meeting is available to the public at the city clerk's office.

"There was no clandestine October 1998 deal," Pfingst said in his dismissal motion. "The mayor's intentions could not have been more public."

Pfingst said a second unrelated misconduct charge against Golding was also not supported by facts.

The grand jury had alleged that Golding did not reappoint members to a citizens commission calling for utility lines to be placed underground by the city's utility company, the former San Diego Gas & Electric Co. The implication of the charge was that Golding was doing a favor for the utility.

But Pfingst found that Golding had reappointed commission members and that the commission continued meeting at a time when the grand jury suggested it was defunct.

With regard to both charges, Pfingst noted that court decisions have found that elected officials have immunity for legislative actions.

Give the passions aroused by public subsidies for sports teams, the grand jury charge involving the supposed illicit politicking in support of Proposition C has grabbed the greater share of public attention here.

Proposition C was sold to voters by Golding and other boosters as "more than just a ballpark." It was also a way to help an area that has not enjoyed the revival of the rest of downtown. The area is dotted with warehouses, vacant lots and industrial uses.

In exchange for a new "intimate" ballpark of 43,000 seats, in the manner of Camden Yards in Baltimore and Jacobs Field in Cleveland, the Padres have agreed to remain in San Diego at least until 2024. The team's lease at city-owned Qualcomm Stadium expires after this season.

Padres owners John Moores and Larry Lucchino have insisted that the team is losing money in San Diego and needs the additional revenue from sky boxes and other deluxe accommodations in a new ballpark if it is to remain in San Diego.

As part of the deal, the Padres owners have pledged to take the lead in finding private investors to build a hotel, shopping and office tower complex.

The project is moving ahead slowly amid litigation filed by property owners whose land would have to be condemned to make way for the ballpark.

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