Daniel Dawson, the former Del Rey Oaks city manager, walked into Monterey County Superior Court on Feb. 5 with the hope a judge would reduce his conviction on a conflict-of-interest charge from a felony to a misdemeanor.
If the judge agreed, it meant Dawson would get to pocket the whole of his CalPERS benefits—an estimated $280,000-plus over the course of his lifetime that would otherwise disappear if the felony conviction stood, according to defense attorney Michael Lawrence.
According to CalPERS—that's California Public Employees's Retirement System—rules, a beneficiary convicted of any felony for conduct arising out of, or in performance in, their official duties, must forfeit all accrued rights and benefits in any public retirement system they're a member of at the time the felony is committed, retroactive to the first commission date of the crime. Dawson, 60, currently receives $6,434 a month as a PERS beneficiary—the felony conviction would reduce that by 17 percent.
Dawson "was a very busy public official," Lawrence told Judge Andrew Liu during the afternoon sentencing hearing. "During the time he was city manager, he was actively involved in local government, as a member of FORA, TAMC, the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District…this is the only blemish on his record.
"The public is protected here no matter what you do today," Lawrence told Liu, referencing the fact that conflict-of-interest conviction, whether a felony or misdemeanor, precludes Dawson from ever holding public office again. "If you reduce this to a misdemeanor, I think it will not reduce the protection to society from Mr. Dawson."
The aforementioned "blemish" played out like this: Just weeks after Dawson resigned as city manager in January of 2017 during a turbulent time for Del Rey Oaks City Hall, he filed an application with the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to transfer water credits from city-owned property to a residential lot he owned, and identified himself on that application as city manager.
The felony case against Dawson centered around his attempt to represent himself as a public official and use that as influence for his own financial benefit. He was also convicted of a misdemeanor violation of the Political Reform Act for failing to reveal his property ownership on required disclosure forms filed in 2016.
As the Weekly reported in 2017 when Dawson was charged, when he bought the lot at 815 Portola Road for the low price of $50,000 in 2015, it was the last buildable lot remaining in the city—the only caveat being there were no water credits. (Hence the bargain price.)
But when it came to reducing the charge and saving Dawson some cash, Liu wasn't having it. Prosecutor Lindsey O'Shea argued the felony should stand, saying, "This was a mangling of the public trust. This is an egregious violation.
"He stands to lose a lot if this remains a felony and I believe it's warranted. He needs to be a cautionary tale," O'Shea said.
Liu called it a "classic situation" of conflict of interest.
"And it wasn't inadvertent either," Liu said. "This was a scheme driven purely by self-interest at the expense of the citizens of Del Rey Oaks."
Liu declined to reduce the felony, and sentenced Dawson to 120 days of home confinement and three years supervised probation stemming from his Oct. 23, 2019 conviction. Dawson is now living in Sebastopol and will be allowed to serve the confinement term there.
The defense's response to O'Shea's sentencing motion lays out a series of events that led to Dawson's undoing, starting with a once-positive relationship that soured with then-Mayor Jerry Edelen.
According to Lawrence, Edelen tried to usurp the authority of the city manager's position by involving himself in a hiring decision that wasn't his to make. The relationship worsened, former Councilmember Mike Ventimiglia told Lawrence, when Dawson confronted Edelen and a few other councilmembers for launching an investigation into a Del Rey Oaks police officer in violation of both the Police Officers Bill of Rights and the state's open meeting law, the Brown Act.
Edelen, who declined to comment for this article, told a District Attorney investigator that "he has tried to find something to take him (Dawson) down, but every time he questions him, (Dawson) threatens a lawsuit," Lawrence wrote in court papers.
When Dawson concluded the schism between him and the council was irreparable, he resigned on Jan. 3, 2017. But that resignation came with financial strings, which the council rejected.
Days later, Edelen went to the District Attorney and accused Dawson of "potential conspiracy to commit fraud against the city of Del Rey Oaks" by giving then-Police Chief Ron Langford a raise without running it past the city attorney or council. An investigation found it was within Dawson's purview to offer the raise, and it had been reviewed by the city attorney.
The drama continued when the city filed for a restraining order against Dawson who, despite having resigned, continued to visit City Hall. Four months after the city and Dawson entered mediation, came up with a settlement agreement that included $150,000 in severance and the dismissal of the restraining order case, he was charged with the felony violation of Government Code section 1090, the conflict-of-interest code for public officials that led to his eventual conviction and Wednesday's sentence.
Yet to be determined is the amount of restitution Dawson will be ordered to pay. In his filing, Lawrence wrote that Del Rey Oaks is seeking $291,364.13 in restitution, broken down as follows: $2,743.69 for security upgrades to City Hall; $1,000 in computer forensic work; $5,844 in city staff time; $62,970 in city attorney's fees; the $150,000 severance package; $37,887.69 for what Dawson was paid between Jan. 3 and May 22, 2017; and $30,917.95 for the cost of drilling a replacement well related to the water credit swap.
Lawrence maintains most of those cost requests have little or nothing to do with Dawson's 1090 conviction, and that the well drilling contract was entered into more than a year before Dawson and the city settled.
In a letter Dawson submitted to the court, he wrote that he has "sincere and humble remorse" and accepts full responsibility for his "poor choices" in the matter.
"I have and will continue to pay dearly, financially, emotionally and spiritually, for my errors in judgment and more importantly this burden has been very difficult for my family, which had no part in my irresponsible actions," he writes. "Given that hindsight is 20-20, what would I have done differently? I would have passed on the property ownership interest located in the jurisdiction that I was entrusted by the public to manage.
"I most certainly would have given more forethought to how attempting to get water credit for my personal property would undermine the public's trust in its public officials," he adds. "My actions were a poor reflection on the entire political body of my city, not just myself and I didn't give that proper consideration."
Liu will begin considering the restitution issue at a hearing set for 8:30am on April 15.