Gambling addiction cost San Diego mayor $1 billion


AFP Photo / Mike Clarke
AFP Photo / Mike Clarke

$1 billion in wins at a casino may sound like a jackpot – but not if the losses total $1.13 billion.

Former San Diego mayor Maureen O’Connor became so addicted to gambling that she stole $2.1 million from her late husband’s charity to feed her habit.

Now, the former mayor and council member is living in poverty and being forced to pay back the money she took from her deceased husband’s R.P. Foundation – a nonprofit organization that provides money to numerous other charities. Having suffered $13 million in total losses during a decade-long video poker spree, O’Connor hardly has the funds to return the ‘borrowed’ cash. The woman has already sold her $2.5 million property and borrowed money from friends, most of which was used to gamble.

“I always intended to pay it back,” she told reporters at a news conference. “And I still intend to pay it back.”

The 66-year-old retiree’s fortune has plummeted in the years since she was San Diego’s first female mayor from 1986 to 1992. She once had an estimated $40 to $50 million in her bank account, which she inherited from her now-deceased husband, Jack in the Box founder Robert O. Peterson.

But she gambled that money away. And when it was gone, she continued to use the funds from Peterson’s charity, only to lose that money as well. When the missing $2.1 million was linked to O’Connor, she was arrested – but pleaded not guilty to a money laundering charge.

The Justice Department on Thursday agreed to defer the prosecution for two years, giving the woman 24 months to repay the foundation and receive medical treatment for her gambling addiction. If she is unable to repay the ‘borrowed’ money, she could be heavily prosecuted. In the state of California, money laundering of $1 to $2.5 million dollars is punished with three years imprisonment.

“It’s a case in which we’ve agreed that charges will be filed, but they will be dismissed without a conviction, assuming that Maureen has appropriate treatment and conforms to the law for a period of two years,” Gener Iredale, O’Connor’s defense attorney, told reporters at Thursday’s news conference.

O’Connor expressed regret about her actions, shedding tears and claiming she had never intended to steal.

“Most of you know, I never meant to hurt the city,” said the elderly woman, who needs the assistance of a cane to walk.

The distraught woman then blamed her gambling addiction on a brain tumor she had growing.

“There are two Maureens – Maureen No. 1 and Maureen No. 2,” she said. “Maureen No. 2 is the Maureen who did not know she had a tumor growing in her brain.”

The tumor has since been removed, but O’Connor continues to suffer from a number of other ailments that make her unfit for court.

O’Connor has also been struggling with her late husband’s passing, who died of leukemia in 1994. She began to gamble in 2001, while still trying to come to terms with the pain and loneliness of her loss. One of O’Connor’s friends described her habit as “grief gambling”,according to a court filing acquired by the Associated Press.

But her long history of political service, followed by her years of grief, can do little to lift her out of the criminal consequences.

“No figure, regardless of how much good they’ve done or how much they’ve given to charity can escape criminal liability with impunity,” Attorney Laura Duffy told AP.

But O’Connor has found a light at the end of the tunnel: the former mayor has filed a lawsuit against investors who defaulted on the payments of a hotel she sold for $7.5 million in 2005. If O’Connor wins the case, she plans to use the damages to repay the charitable foundation.

Until then, San Diego’s first female mayor continues to live with her sister as she comes to terms with her multimillion-dollar debt and her public fall from grace.

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