Former mayor 'gambled stolen millions'
A former mayor of San Diego gambled more than $1 billion (€740 million) over a nine-year period and stole more than $2 million from a charity set up by her late husband to feed her runaway gambling habit, federal prosecutors have told a court in California.
Maureen O’Connor (66), a former teacher, whose grandfather emigrated from Ireland, bet the money at casinos in San Diego, Las Vegas and Atlantic City on her game of choice, video poker.
Ms O’Connor’s lawyers said she turned to gambling following the death of her husband in 1994 and the deaths of other relatives and close friends.
They said she had a “syndrome known as grief gambling” and claimed her addiction was aggravated by a brain tumour.
Ms O’Connor appeared in court on Thursday to plead not guilty to a charge of misappropriating funds under a deferred prosecution.
As part of the deal with prosecutors, she has two years to repay the $2 million she took from the RP Foundation, a charity set up in 1966 by her husband Robert Peterson, co-founder of the Jack in the Box fast-food chain.
Despite gambling more than $1 billion, funded by selling property and personal belongings, raiding her savings and borrowing from friends, Ms O’Connor’s net gambling losses were $13 million, her lawyers said.
Prosecutors have said it is impossible to know how much she lost over the years.
Ms O’Connor had borrowed multiple mortgages on her home in La Jolla, California, to fuel her gambling.
At one point she had a fortune worth between $40 million and $50 million. Prosecutors said she was now financially “destitute”.
One of 13 children of a part-time bookie and prized boxer known as “Kid Jerome”, Ms O’Connor came from a working-class background in San Diego. She worked as a physical education teacher at a Catholic school before turning to politics in 1971.
Ms O’Connor was the first female mayor of San Diego, serving from 1986 to 1992. During her time in office, she spoke proudly of her Irish grandfather, who had emigrated to the US but whom she had never met.
Ms O’Connor is in poor health following the removal of the large brain tumour in 2011 and after suffering a stroke. She cannot work and lives with relatives, including her twin sister Mavoureen.
The former politician attended court on Thursday using a cane. The hearing was stopped at one point after she broke down and had to be comforted by her lawyer.
A tearful Ms O’Connor told reporters afterwards that “those of you who know me here would know that I never meant to hurt the city that I love”, referring to the money that would have gone from her late husband’s charity to local charities.
“I always intended to pay it back and I still intend to pay it back,” she said.