A Placentia public works director who earned a second salary working for the city as a highly paid consultant on an ambitious rail project could be ordered to prison if he fails to pay back a large share of his earnings to the north Orange County town this summer.
Since late 2008, Christopher Becker has been under court order to reimburse the city hundreds of thousands of dollars he made from his lucrative consulting contract. A judge has now given him a deadline to pay the remainder of what is owed or face imprisonment.
Becker, 54, of Rancho Santa Margarita pleaded no contest six years ago to allegations that he improperly influenced his hiring to manage the city's OnTrac project, a $650-million endeavor that plunged the suburban community into debt.
The plan called for 11 overpasses and lowering busy railroad tracks into a five-mile concrete trench through Placentia's historic Old Town district. Proponents said the project would help unclog the historic district and eliminate the incessant sound of train whistles.
But officials shelved the project in 2006 after it failed to receive federal funding and the city's ability to finance the project crumbled.
To settle his case, Becker agreed to pay back $500,000 of his earnings to Placentia, which had allowed him to work as both the public works director and a private consultant in charge of OnTrac. He still owes $77,000.
At a hearing earlier this month, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals expressed his impatience with the pace of Becker's repayments and gave him until Aug. 22 to satisfy his obligations or face a prison term of up to three years.
Goethals previously threatened Becker with imprisonment if he did not make his payments. Court records indicate that his sentencing has been postponed 19 times since 2011.
Senior Assistant Dist. Atty. Jaime Coulter said Tuesday that Becker, who is now a planning consultant, has paid a substantial portion of what he owes but it has been a long process to recover the money.
"We need to keep the heat on to make sure we get back the taxpayers' money," Coulter added.
Becker's original consulting contract guaranteed him $4.5 million over 10 years, or $450,000 a year, which made him one of the highest paid transportation officials in the country. He was hired without competitive bids as OnTrac's executive director in April 2000, the same month the project was created.
His compensation as a consultant was scaled back in 2003 after the city attorney questioned the legality of Becker's hiring and a controversy erupted over OnTrac's expenditures.
To help pay for the project, city leaders drained reserve accounts, cut programs, auctioned off parkland, sold bonds and once considered eliminating Placentia's police force to save money.
After an 18-month investigation, the Orange County district attorney's office charged Becker in 2006 with violating state conflict-of-interest laws that prohibit public officials from influencing government contracts in which they have a financial stake.
Before his contract was awarded, Becker suggested salary terms and recommended to the OnTrac board that he be hired, according to city records.
Prosecutors alleged that he made more than $1.3 million from the arrangement, plus city benefits as public works director. He pleaded no contest in December 2008.
City officials say that the financial effects of OnTrac linger to this day as they continue to pay back $12 million in state funds, which Caltrans claimed were improperly spent on the project.
Placentia received a $4-million loan from the Orange County Transportation Authority to help pay the debt — a borrowing that is being repaid with funds that could be used for street improvements.
"We are still paying the price of OnTrac," City Treasurer Craig Green said.