In the final act of a legal drama that has dominated local politics for months, San Diego Councilwoman Valerie Stallings resigned Monday after pleading guilty to receiving unreported gifts from Padres majority owner John Moores.
The most expensive of the gifts, worth about $2,300, were airplane tickets so that Stallings’ daughter and sister in Kansas could come to San Diego to be with Stallings during a mastectomy and chemotherapy in 1996. Moores also arranged for Stallings’ mother in Florida to come to San Diego on the Padres team plane for the same purpose.
The other gifts included free use of Moores’ home in Carmel, a free lunch at a Pebble Beach country club, an answering machine, a camera, and assorted Padres souvenirs and autographed baseballs.
City Hall officials said they hope Stallings’ resignation will enable construction to resume on a downtown ballpark for the Padres, which has been halted while a federal grand jury investigated her and Moores.
In her resignation letter, the three-term Democrat apologized to her constituents and said she found fighting a federal investigation even more daunting than fighting breast cancer.
“I have always seen myself as someone who could overcome any challenge no matter how great--including breast cancer,” Stallings said. "[But] I no longer have the physical, mental or spiritual strength--nor the financial resources--to continue the fight to clear my name.”
Stallings, 61, known for her work on environmental and mass transit issues, pleaded guilty in Superior Court to failing to disclose the gifts from Moores on state-mandated forms and then failing to disqualify herself from voting on issues involving Moores and the ballpark.
Prosecutors said there was nothing illegal in Stallings’ acceptance of the gifts. The crime, they said, was in not disclosing them or disqualifying herself on votes involving the ballpark.
“This resolution of the case assures the public that breaches of the public trust will be vigorously and thoroughly pursued,” said U.S. Atty. Gregory Vega.
Superior Court Judge Wayne Peterson, in accepting the two guilty pleas, said he will accept the prosecutors’ recommendation that Stallings pay a $10,000 fine but be spared any jail time after final details of her probation are ironed out.
With the federal grand jury probing the matter, the city has been unable to sell the $225 million in bonds necessary to resume work on the ballpark project, which ran out of money in October. Voters approved the project by 60% in 1998.
Mayor Dick Murphy, who had called on Stallings to resign months ago, said the city still must deal with several lawsuits by ballpark opponents before bonds can be sold. But “I can now at least see a path out of the legal thicket that has enveloped the project,” Murphy said.
After a seven-month investigation, prosecutors agreed to file misdemeanor charges, rather than felony mail fraud charges, after Stallings promised to resign.
Stallings, a former cancer researcher at Salk Institute in La Jolla, did not appear in court. Her attorneys entered guilty pleas to the two charges.
Wearing sunglasses and accompanied by her dog, Stallings left City Hall just moments after submitting her resignation to the city clerk.
“I would hope no private citizen or elected official should ever have to suffer this kind of scrutiny of their life or friendship,” said Stallings’ attorney, John Wertz.
Since buying the Padres, Moores has established himself as a major donor to local philanthropic causes. He has contributed tens of millions of dollars to cancer research centers in San Diego and Houston.
Prosecutors cleared Moore of any suspicion that he was attempting to bribe Stallings in exchange for her vote on the council or that he engaged in insider trading in tipping her to a profitable stock deal in a software company he controls.
Unlike other gifts, Stallings had listed the $11,200 stock profit on her disclosure forms. Moores had listed Stallings on a form required by the Securities Exchange Commission as among those friends and family members that he had tipped to the initial public offering.
Stallings has been a strong backer of a plan for the city to pay 70% of the cost of a new Padres ballpark as part of a downtown redevelopment project. City Council support for the project has been strong.
Stallings is the second local politician to come to grief after taking airplane rides from Moores.
In last fall’s mayoral election, the campaign of Supervisor Ron Roberts, the leading candidate, never recovered from a front-page story indicating that he had been flown free to Hawaii to watch a Padres exhibition game. Murphy countered by promising to establish an ethics commission if elected.
In the hours after her resignation, Stallings angrily confronted reporters in front of her home. She was wearing a Padres sweatshirt.