Felony Charges Trip Up San Jose Mayor

San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales was once considered a rising star in the Democratic Party. Now Gonzales is facing felony charges, including bribery, conspiracy and falsifying public records. He's fighting to prove his innocence and hold on to his job.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News it's is DAY TO DAY. In San Jose, California, the country's 10th largest city, the city council is calling for the resignation of Major Ron Gonzales. Early this week Gonzales was arraigned on six felony counts, including bribery, conspiracy and falsifying public records. Not so long ago he was seen as a rising star, with a possible future in National Politics. NPR's Richard Gonzales, no relation, has this report.

RICHARD GONZALES reporting:

Ron Gonzales is the first Latino Mayor of San Jose, a city that bills itself as the capital of Silicon Valley. He was first elected in 1998. Two years later he addressed the Democratic National Convention and he seemed destined for a statewide office.

(Soundbite of courtroom)

GONZALES: But this week he found himself in the Santa Clara County courtroom trying to avoid a jail cell.

Unidentified Man: Counsel, state your appearances, please, for the record.

GONZALES: In a brief arraignment, Gonzales postponed entering a plea. He and his Budget Chief, Joe Guerra, are accused of conspiring with a garbage contractor to win a lucrative city contract and pass off the company's increased labor cost to tax payers.

The secret deal wound up costing the city more than $11 million. The six felony counts could cost Gonzales eight years in prison. Deputy District Attorney Julius Finkelstein explained why the charges include bribery, in spite of the fact that Gonzales did not personally profit from the deal.

Mr. JULIUS FINKELSTEIN (Deputy District Attorney): In 1982, the California Supreme Court ruled that a bribe does not have to personally benefit the public official. A public official cannot use his official position to make a secret deal to benefit either him or his political supporters.

GONZALES: However, in a news conference after the court hearing, Gonzales defiantly defended the deal, his administration, and his reputation.

Mayor RON GONZALES (San Jose, California): I think I've proven over almost eight years now that I have the ability to be a big city Mayor. I think the record shows that no matter what challenges I faced or my office has faced, we've been able to very successful to continue to work with the city council, to get progress for the City of San Jose, and to get things done for the people of San Jose. And I intend to continue to do that.

GONZALES: But that posture has also cost Gonzales the backing of some former supporters, including several on the city council. The council did not have the authority to remove Gonzales from office. Instead they met yesterday for a special session, to pass a non-binding resolution urging the Mayor to resign. Vice-Mayor Cindy Chavez, a candidate to replace a turned-out Gonzales, said she wasn't making the judgment about the Mayor's guilt or innocence.

Still, she said, Gonzales should step down.

Ms. CINDY CHAVEZ (Vice Mayor, San Jose): I want Mayor Gonzales to have his opportunity to defend himself in court. But I want the city to have the opportunity to move forward.

GONZALES: Before their vote, the council heard from 20 citizens, most of whom supported the Mayor. One was Bill Chew, who said that he had run unsuccessfully against Gonzales twice. He compared the city council to a lynch mob.

Mr. BILL CHEW (Former Mayoral Candidate): Council members, please stop this attempt to remove the Mayor. This is America. In America we have a tradition of presumption of innocence. As of today, the Mayor has been charged with a crime, but no judge or jury has found him guilty of anything.

GONZALES: Nevertheless, the city council voted 8-3, asking the Mayor to resign, with Gonzales himself voting against the resolution. The vote leaves Gonzales as the lamest of ducks. He fills out his term without the backing of the council, facing a mountain of legal defense bills and a political career in tatters. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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