Six years after an ambitious rail project left a small Orange County city on the edge of bankruptcy, the transportation chief who oversaw the $650-million plan was told he’ll be sent to prison if he fails to quickly pay back a large share of his salary.
Christopher Becker, who served as Placentia’s public works director while simultaneously earning a lucrative salary as a consultant on the rail project, has been under court order since 2008 to reimburse the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.
While he had repaid much of his salary, a judge has now given him a deadline to pay the remainder 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, an endeavor that plunged the suburban community into debt.
The plan called for 11 overpasses and lowering busy railroad tracks into a massive 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 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. He still owes $77,000.
At a hearing 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 this week 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 said.
Becker's original consulting contract guaranteed him $4.5 million over 10 years, or $450,000 annually, 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.
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 said 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 said that the financial effects of OnTrac linger to this day as they continue to pay back $12 million in state funds, which Caltrans claims 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," Placentia City Treasurer Craig Green said.