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Former city manager cleared of conflict of interest in OnTrac case

Placentia official had no financial stake in the deal, court rules.

October 24, 2008|Dan Weikel | Weikel is a Times staff writer.

A state appellate court has dismissed a conflict-of-interest charge against former Placentia City Manager Robert D'Amato, a central figure in the town's controversial OnTrac rail project that was shelved in 2006.

The 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana threw out the felony charge on the grounds that D'Amato did not stand to gain financially from an OnTrac management contract awarded by the city to Christopher Becker, Placentia's public works director at the time and a friend of D'Amato.

According to the 25-page ruling issued Tuesday, the Orange County district attorney's office conceded that D'Amato never had any personal financial interest in the decisions that established OnTrac or the professional services contract between OnTrac and Becker & Associates.

The evidence shows that D'Amato "was one of several city officials who voted to approve the Becker & Associates contract and provide assistance in bringing the agreement to fruition," the decision stated.

The court noted that although friendship can compromise a public official's loyalties, state conflict-of-interest laws "focus on only the divided loyalties caused by a personal financial interest."

"We thought, clearly, that he should never have been charged," said Ronald Brower, D'Amato's attorney.

"He was doing his job as a public official and had no personal or financial interest in his decisions."

Farrah Emami, a spokesperson for the district attorney's office, had no comment other than to say that prosecutors will review the ruling and decide how to proceed.

As city manager, D'Amato had a major role in the formation and operation of OnTrac, a $650-million project to overhaul a stretch of Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks and revitalize the city's historic Old Town district. Planners had wanted to build 11 overpasses and lower five miles of rail into a concrete trench.

The project was canceled two years ago after it failed to receive federal funding, dragging Placentia deeply into debt and forcing city officials to cut services and sell parkland to keep the effort going.

Prosecutors had charged D'Amato with conflict of interest, arguing that he had aided and abetted Becker in obtaining a lucrative contract to manage the project as a private consultant.

The indictment alleged that D'Amato had participated in the creation of OnTrac and the awarding of Becker's contract even though he was warned that there were potential conflicts of interest by the city attorney. D'Amato retired in December 2003.

Becker still faces conflict-of-interest charges in Orange County Superior Court, where a pretrial hearing is set for Nov. 21. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Prosecutors allege that as the city's public works director, Becker illegally participated in the creation of OnTrac in April 2000 and influenced his hiring by the city to manage the project as a private consultant. He was allowed to stay on as public works director for more than two years after the contract was awarded.

Becker's original consulting contract guaranteed him $450,000 a year for 10 years, making him one of the highest paid transportation officials in the nation.

His contract was scaled back in 2003 amid controversy over his pay and OnTrac's expenditures.

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dan.weikel@latimes.com

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