Plea deal offered to director charged with soliciting sex

The Half Moon Bay charity director caught in a sting operation and charged with soliciting sex from a job seeker will be heading to trial early next year, a San Mateo County judge ruled Wednesday.

Jury selection will begin Feb. 19 unless 65-year-old Michael Niece accepts a plea deal that prosecutors offered Wednesday.

San Mateo County Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe declined to reveal the details of the offer, but said Niece’s public defender, William Johnston, offered to think it over. The two sides will return to court next week.

Niece is the director of Coastside Catholic Worker, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to the poor. He has pleaded not guilty to one misdemeanor count of solicitation of an act of prostitution. The charge stems from an Aug. 14 incident in which a 35-year-old woman told police she came to Niece seeking job assistance and was allegedly offered $500 for sex, according to prosecutors.

The woman called police, who set up and recorded a phone call between her and Niece. The charity director allegedly repeated his offer and the woman then set up a rendezvous with him in Half Moon Bay, Wagstaffe said.

Half Moon Bay police cited and released Niece after he allegedly showed up to meet the woman.

Johnston, who appeared court on Niece’s behalf Wednesday, said he didn’t understand the attention the case has garnered.

“It’s a minor offense for someone who doesn’t deserve to have his name dragged through the grass like this,” said Johnston, who declined to comment further.

Wagstaffe said that while the charge is not a felony, the offense is anything but minor to the victim, who had previously come to the organization for diapers.

“This is not a victimless crime. There is a woman who was made to feel incredibly uncomfortable by this solicitation,” he said. “This isn’t a woman who went to a sleazy bar and got propositioned. This was a vulnerable person seeking help.”

Niece faces six months in the county jail and a maximum fine of $1,000 if convicted, according to prosecutors.

Niece did not return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday. An outgoing message in Spanish told callers “our garage is closed. There aren’t any more clothes, food or diapers.”

Niece and his wife founded the organization in 2000 and ran it out of their Kelly Avenue home. It is not directly affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.

tbarak@examiner.com

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