A popular San Diego mayor admitted in court Thursday that she took millions from her deceased husband’s charitable foundation during her decade-long gambling spree which resulted in her losing more than $1 billion.
Maureen O’Connor was a physical education teacher and eventually went on to the San Diego City Council when she was just 25 years old. Later, she served two terms as San Diego mayor and was the first female mayor of the city.
She blames her gambling addiction on a brain tumor that was diagnosed in 2011.
She pleaded not guilty to a money laundering charge after agreeing with the Justice Department to repay the foundation and receive treatment for gambling.
At one time, O’Connor was considerably wealthy after she inherited an estimated $40-$50 million from her husband of 17 years, Robert O. Peterson, who owned Jack in the Box Inc. But now, O’Connor is broke and forced to live with her sister.
On Thursday she walked across the room with a cane and struggled to stand, leaning on her attorney to help her.
“There are two Maureens - Maureen No. 1 and Maureen No. 2,” O’Connor said. “Maureen No. 2 is the Maureen who did not know she had a tumor growing in her brain.”
She usually played video poker at San Diego casinos, and also frequented Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Eugene Iredale, O’Connor’s attorney, said she played for hours on end.
O’Connor racked up around $1 billion in winnings between 2000 and 2009, but she lost even more according to casino reports.
Though she struggled with her gambling addiction, her hometown sympathized with her. Magistrate Judge David Bartick said she left “a very strong legacy in the city of San Diego.”
According to the U.S. attorney’s office, O’Connor was influenced by her brain tumor to engage in the gamblings. The tumor was removed but doctors wrote letters to the court detailing other ailments.
“Maureen O’Connor was a selfless public official who contributed much to the well-being of San Diego,” U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said. “However, no figure, regardless of how much good they’ve done or how much they’ve given to charity, can escape criminal liability with impunity.”
After her husband died in 1994 from leukemia, she started struggling with her gambling addiction due to chronic pain and loneliness from his death. Her attorney called it “grief gambling” in a court filing.
She admitted in court that she took $2.1 million from the R.P. Foundation between September 2008 and March 2009 to pay off gambling debts, wager more and cover living costs. She was one of the trustees, and the foundation supported multiple charities including Alzheimer’s Association, City of Hope, and San Diego Hospice.