A self-made entrepreneur who headed a $9-million-a-year business serving food at military bases and federal immigration centers has pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to two felony counts of giving illegal gratuities to a government official.
Desia Ritson, 53, owner of Balantine’s South Bay Caterers of Carlsbad, parlayed a small 1986 government contract into a multimillion-dollar enterprise that allowed her to operate dining facilities on military bases in California, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and South Korea.
Ritson, who also operated government-funded food programs at immigration centers in Downtown Los Angeles and Manhattan, once said of her success: “I am living proof of what you can do in America.”
The former waitress was indicted in July on charges of defrauding the government with a forged birth certificate, bribing the woman who approved the contracts, and lying on her application to the minority small business program.
She pleaded guilty Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Marilyn J. Huff to providing free use of a gasoline credit card to Mercedes B. Shetter, 52, assistant director of the San Diego office of the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Ritson, who also pleaded guilty to hiring the daughter-in-law of Shetter’s fiance and other relatives of Shetter’s, will be sentenced Dec. 10. She faces up to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.
Shetter, who headed the SBA’s minority small business program and thus awarded its lucrative federal contracts, was indicted in July on 24 felony counts, 19 involving gratuities from government contractors and five of bank fraud. No trial date has been set for her.
Ritson and Shetter recently became targets of an investigation into abuses surrounding the San Diego office of the SBA. Ritson’s was the fourth guilty plea in the investigation, the others coming from two government contractors and a bank loan officer.
In an interview with The Times in May, Ritson attributed her success to Defense Department incentive programs for small businesses and minorities. But like many defense-dependent entrepreneurs, she had complained of being devastated by defense downsizing.