Maureen O'Connor walks to court with her attorney, Eugene Iredale.… (Peggy Peattie / Associated…)
SAN DIEGO — She married a fabulously wealthy man decades her elder, and became the first female mayor of San Diego. But when Maureen O'Connor left public life, she spent countless hours seated in front of video-poker machines.
Over a nine-year period, she wagered an estimated $1 billion, including millions from a charity set up by her late husband, who founded Jack in the Box.
That was the portrait that emerged in court Thursday as the frail former mayor tearfully acknowledged she skimmed more than $2 million from a charity founded by her late husband, Robert O. Peterson.
O'Connor, 66, admitted in a plea deal that she had a gambling addiction and is nearly destitute. Her lawyer, prominent defense attorney Eugene Iredale, suggested that a brain tumor may have impaired her reasoning; he gave reporters copies of her brain scan from a 2011 surgery.
O'Connor's rapidly declining medical condition "renders it highly improbable — if not impossible — that she could be brought to trial," according to court documents filed by federal prosecutors.
"This is a sad day for the city of San Diego," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Phillip Halpern. "Maureen O'Connor was born and raised in this town. She rose from humble origins.... She dedicated much of her life, personal and professional, to improving this city."
The $1-billion gambling binge stretched from 2000 to 2009, according to court documents. In 2008 and 2009, when the fortune she had inherited was not enough, she began taking from the R.P. Foundation to cover her losses.
Despite being ahead more than $1 billion at one point, O'Connor "suffered even larger gambling losses," according to prosecutors. Her net loss, Iredale said, was about $13 million.
She was considered such a high-roller that Las Vegas casinos would send a private jet to pick her up in San Diego. Records show that O'Connor won $100,000 at the Barona casino in San Diego County, while at roughly the same time she needed to cash a $100,000 check at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Those who knew the former political doyenne said she had become a recluse, inscrutable even to those she counted as friends.
"I considered myself one of her closest friends, but I would call her and she wouldn't return my call," said lawyer Louis Wolfsheimer. "I didn't want anything from her, just to know how she was. But it looked like she was becoming reclusive."
In a bargain with prosecutors, O'Connor agreed to repay $2,088,000 to the R.P. Foundation started by Peterson, which supported charities such as City of Hope, San Diego Hospice, and the Alzheimer's Assn., and was driven into insolvency in 2009 by O'Connor's misappropriation of funds, prosecutors said.
"I never meant to hurt the city," an emotional O'Connor told reporters gathered at a restaurant close to the federal courthouse. She promised to repay the foundation but declined to answer questions.
Prosecutors agreed to defer prosecution for two years. If O'Connor violates no further laws and makes restitution, the charge of making illegal financial transactions may be dismissed. Under the agreement, O'Connor acknowledged her guilt but was allowed to plead not guilty.
If convicted, O'Connor could have faced a maximum 10-year prison sentence and a fine of up to $250,000.
The daughter of a boxer who made his living as a cabbie and sometime bookie, O'Connor, a Democrat, rocketed to political prominence in 1971 when she was elected to the City Council at age 25. A onetime champion swimmer, O'Connor was working as a physical education teacher at a Catholic school and was pushed into politics when a group of students she took to a City Council meeting was treated rudely.
She met Peterson, 30 years her senior, when the Republican known for supporting liberal candidates and liberal causes offered to contribute to her council campaign. Political reform was in the air, and once elected, O'Connor helped persuade the council to adopt contribution limits, a reform later emulated by the state.
A close ally of then-Mayor Pete Wilson, O'Connor served two terms on the council and later was appointed to the Port Commission.
After marrying Peterson, O'Connor became a political anomaly in San Diego: although wealthy, she cultivated a base of political support in lower-income neighborhoods south of Interstate 8, the traditional dividing line of San Diego politics. When she traveled in minority neighborhoods, adults would come from their homes to wave at her; to all, she was known merely as Maureen.
As mayor, O'Connor organized a Russian arts festival and prowled the streets with the police chief, talking to prostitutes as she and Chief Bob Burgreen looked for information about a string of killings targeting streetwalkers. She went incognito as a homeless person to see how the homeless were treated in San Diego; she worked on a city garbage truck to experience the day-to-day life of blue-collar city workers.