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Dispute Persists After Plea

Parties in residence case can't agree whether admission was to felony or misdemeanor.

January 31, 2003|Li Fellers | Times Staff Writer

Peter Sabatino Jr. stood before a judge and pleaded guilty to one count of falsely claiming to live in West Covina while running for the local school board.

But now Sabatino and prosecutors offer wildly different versions of what exactly took place at Monday's hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

"I don't know what I pled to, but the bottom line was that it was a misdemeanor," he said. "I was guaranteed a misdemeanor."

"There's no guaranteed misdemeanor," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Ceballos of the district attorney's Public Integrity Division. "His plea was a felony plea."

Sabatino, a trustee with the West Covina Unified School District for almost 15 years, pleaded guilty to one count of falsifying his residency. Sabatino claimed to live in Valinda, a community within the school district, when, prosecutors said, he really lived in Downey.

As a condition of the plea, Sabatino must resign his seat by Feb. 11 and is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 19 to 250 hours of community service and three years' probation.

Things got complicated Tuesday when, in remarks approved by his attorney, he told a school board meeting audience that he lives in the very house that prosecutors said he didn't live in. "I do live in the West Covina area," Sabatino said.

He said he had done nothing wrong. "I've always maintained my innocence," he said in an interview.

So why plead guilty? Sabatino and his attorney, Rickard Santweir, said he was entering a "West plea" -- so named for a legal case -- that allows a defendant to enter into a plea agreement without admitting guilt.

"I didn't understand it was a guilty plea," Sabatino said.

Ceballos called such reasoning "legal fiction. It made him feel better, but he still pled guilty."

Ceballos said the charge against Sabatino was a "wobbler" and could have been filed as either a felony or a misdemeanor. The judge has the discretion to "bump it down" to a misdemeanor, he said.

Santweir said the judge has agreed to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor at Sabatino's sentencing. Prosecutors didn't oppose such a deal but didn't support it either.

Sabatino said he didn't realize that he pleaded guilty to a felony until several hours after the hearing. "Felony" was used in the district attorney's press release shortly after his plea.

"I was totally shocked by how they presented this thing," Sabatino said. He said that a felony conviction could cost him his job and pension.

"It telegraphs the wrong message to my employer and the public," said Sabatino, a records manager with the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

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