A felony fraud case against a Daly City council member could potentially make her the first Peninsula politician in at least three decades to be forced out of office because of a criminal conviction, prosecutors say.
Maggie Gomez, who was re-elected to a third term in November, is set to return to San Mateo County Superior Court on Jan. 31 for a pretrial conference in advance of a March 7 trial on 16 felony charges.
If she is convicted or pleads to a felony she will immediately be disqualified from office, raising questions about how she will be replaced. Gomez has previously declined to discuss her case and could not be reached for comment.
Prosecutors discussed potential plea agreements with defense attorney Michael Rains prior to Gomez’s last court appearance in August. But since then, Rains — who also represented former BART officer Johannes Mehserle — has been out of touch, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.
Wagstaffe said prosecutors will not allow Gomez to plead to a misdemeanor. That likely means she would need to go to trial and obtain an acquittal or a hung jury in order to avoid a felony conviction that would disqualify her from serving on the council.
Other Peninsula politicians have had run-ins with the law, but none in at least three decades have resulted in convictions that expelled them from office, said Wagstaffe. “It’s a rare and unique thing,” he said.
In the event of a vacancy, the remaining city council members will have to choose whether to hold a special election. The council could choose to appoint a person to the seat rather than hold a special election. But a 1992 city ordinance says the appointee would stay in the seat only until a special election could be held, such as at the next regularly scheduled election, said City Attorney Rose Zimmerman.
“The spirit [of the law] is pretty much [that] you have to have a special election,” Zimmerman said.
At least one council member already knows he would support an election.
“I think what we should do, like they do in any good democracy, is give the authority and power to the voters,” said Council Member David Canepa. Gomez pleaded not guilty earlier this year to the charges, including 10 counts of making a false statement to obtain insurance, five counts of presenting a claim with false information and one count of attempted perjury.
San Mateo County prosecutors say she filed a workers compensation claim in 2005 stating she was injured at her job at Seton Medical Center, then was later seen doing things she claimed she couldn’t do, such as exercising and lifting groceries.
Her council colleagues said they don’t think the case has affected the council thus far, and they hope it stays that way.
“It’s my hope it doesn’t become a distraction,” said Council Member Mike Guingona. “I think we’ve done a fairly good job up until now.”
“I can tell you I’m supportive of Maggie’s effort to try to do all she can to clear her name and defend herself,” said Council Member Sal Torres. “For me, as long as she’s working and helping the residents, there’s no problem for me.”
Case is a first on Peninsula
Daly City Council member Maggie Gomez is not the first Peninsula council member to face criminal charges. But unlike other embattled politicians in recent years, Gomez is set to still be in office as the allegations reach a jury trial.
If she is convicted, she would likely be the first San Mateo County council member in decades to be forced from office because of a felony conviction, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, who joined the office in 1977 and will become district attorney this week.
In a previous high-profile local case, former San Carlos Mayor Mike King was convicted of two felony fraud charges in April 2006 and was later sentenced to 45 days in jail. Prosecutors said King, who had left office about five months before his conviction, told a political campaign consultant to bill a local fire authority for work she never did.
In October of the same year, 20-year Colma Town Council member Philip Lum was indicted on federal corruption charges for accepting plane tickets from Lucky Chances Casino and not reporting them. He lost a re-election bid in November 2006, pleaded guilty to two charges and was sentenced in July 2007 to 18 months in prison.
Former Colma Council Member Ronald Maldonado was also charged in February 2007 with mail fraud for accepting plane tickets from the same casino and later struck a plea deal. Maldonado served on the council from 2000 to 2004.
Most recently, sitting Belmont Vice Mayor Member Bill Dickenson was convicted in November 2008 of domestic battery and false imprisonment for pulling an ex-girlfriend to the ground by her purse at a Redwood City bar. But because the convictions were misdemeanors, Dickenson remained on the council.