>ORANGE COUNTY GRAND JURY INDICTS TWO PLACENTIA CITY OFFICIALS FOR VIOLATING CONFLICT OF INTEREST LAWS INVOLVING “ONTRAC” RAILWAY PUBLIC WORKS

SANTA ANA – Two former city officials were in court this morning in Department C-5, Central Justice Center, Santa Ana for violating conflict of interest laws while acting in an official capacity as Placentia city officers.  The arraignment was continued to May 31, 2006, at 8:30 a.m.  Last Tuesday, the Grand Jury indicted Christopher Becker, 46, Rancho Santa Margarita, and Robert D’Amato, 69, Placentia, of two felony counts of conflict of interest charges.  If convicted of both counts, each defendant could receive probation to 3 years and 8 months in state prison. 

In June 2004, a group called the “Citizens for a Better Placentia” filed a complaint to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office (OCDA).  After an 18-month investigation by the OCDA Bureau of Investigation, the Orange County Grand Jury heard evidence from 30 witnesses from February to March, 2006. 

Becker, then the Director of Public Works, is accused of violating conflict of interest laws while acting in his official capacity as a Placentia City Officer.  D’Amato, the Placentia City Administrator, is accused of helping Becker participate in the making of two contracts in which Becker had a financial interest. 

The first contract, executed on April 4, 2000, created the Orange North-American Trade Rail Access Corridor Authority (ONTRAC), a joint power authority.  The second contract engaged Christopher Becker as Executive Director of ONTRAC while he was employed concurrently as Placentia’s Director of Public Works.

ONTRAC was formed to facilitate a railroad lowering project in the City of Placentia. Originally budgeted at 300 million dollars, projected costs to complete the railroad lowering plan burgeoned to over 500 million dollars, before the lack of sufficient funding forced the abandonment of the project in 2005.
 
Becker is accused of making more than $500,000 over his regular salary ($110,000) and benefits as Placentia’s Director of Public Works through the formation of these contracts.  During his employment as Executive Director of ONTRAC from April 2000 until the fall of 2005, Christopher Becker is accused of making more than $1.3 million. 

D’Amato is accused of helping in the formation of the two contracts knowing that Becker had a financial interest in both of the contracts.  He is further accused of not investigating the possible conflict of interest even though he was informed of the issue within weeks of the formation of both contracts. Instead, D’Amato withheld information or misinformed other city officials regarding the conflict of interest and the legality of the contracts.

The law governing “conflict of interest” prohibits a city officer from making any contract in his official capacity in which he has a financial interest.  The underlying purpose of this law is to ensure a city officer’s unqualified devotion to his public duty. In evaluating whether there is a violation of this law, it is immaterial whether the contract benefited the city in any way.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Camille Hill of the Felony Projects Unit is prosecuting this case. 

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