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King convicted of felony fraud charges

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
April 18, 2006

After three days of deliberations, the jury found King, 64, guilty of submitting a false claim with the intent to defraud the South County Fire Protection Authority and guilty of conspiring with political consultant Margaret “Peg” Collier, 68, to submit the false claim. The convictions carry a maximum possible sentence of three years in jail.

King’s attorney, Chuck Smith, squeezed his client’s shoulder as the verdicts were read.

Smith intends to move for a new trial June 9, when Judge Barbara Mallach is scheduled to deliver King’s sentence.

“There’s a lot more here,” Smith said. “I want to look into his impeccable background.”

Collier was owed nearly $17,000 for her help in the failed November 2003 Measure I campaign, which would have raised money for the fire agency through a parcel tax. In early 2004, King faxed a detailed invoice to Collier — which he claimed was simply a template — and allegedly told her to bill the Fire Authority for helping find firefighters new jobs, work Collier admits she never did.

Belmont officials took the invoice to the district attorney after it was submitted to City Manager Jere Kersnar, who was serving as the Fire Authority’s chief executive.

King’s trial started March 30. The jury began deliberations Thursday afternoon and returned the verdict Tuesday. “They were grappling with whether Collier had an intent to defraud that was equal to King’s intent,” said Deputy District Attorney Sean Gallagher, who prosecuted the case.

Smith, in closing statements last Wednesday, said King could not be guilty of conspiracy because Collier had no intention of committing fraud. “King’s intent was clear to [the jury] early on,” Gallagher said.

Though Gallagher did not know what sentence his department would ask for, he doubted King, who is eligible for probation, would be sent to jail for three years.

Collier pleaded no contest to misdemeanor fraud charges in December of 2005, in exchange for testifying truthfully in King’s trial. Her sentencing is scheduled for April 27.

“This verdict sends a reminder to people in politics and government that no matter how many good things you do for the community, you can’t bend the rules,” Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said.

San Carlos Mayor Matt Grocott said King’s actions could be seen as an example of questionable practices that have earned the city multiple grand jury investigations.

“This verdict closes the door on an ugly part of San Carlos history,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

April 18, 2006 at 10:12 PM

Posted in Courts, Crime, San Carlos

Closing arguments in former mayor’s trial center on conspiracy

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
April 12, 2006

Closing arguments in the fraud trial against former San Carlos Mayor Mike King focused on whether he and political consultant Margaret “Peg” Collier were in collusion when Collier submitted false invoices to the South County Fire Protection Authority.

The sample invoice King gave Collier was too detailed to be a hastily prepared example, argued Deputy District Attorney Sean Gallagher. King, in other testimony, has said he told Collier to fill in her own hours and rates before faxing the invoice to then-Belmont City Manager Jere Kersnar.

Meanwhile, Collier, in her own testimony, admitted to billing the Authority for helping firefighters find jobs — work she never did — and claims King told her exactly what to do.

“Peg Collier said she had no intent to defraud,” said Chuck Smith, King’s attorney. “It takes two — if she had no intent, then there is no conspiracy.”

Collier was owed approximately $17,000 for her help in the failed Measure I campaign, which would have raised money for the Authority and prevented the layoffs of several firefighters. Collier has since pleaded guilty to misdemeanor fraud charges, and her upcoming sentence depends upon her agreement to testify truthfully in the felony case against King.

Gallagher challenged character witnesses who depicted King as a man of honesty and integrity.

While Collier’s story has remained “relatively consistent” throughout the course of the investigation and trials, King “has an evolution to his story that continues right into this courtroom,” Gallagher said. “They are lies, period.”

Both attorneys said the entire situation could have been avoided.

“There were other ways to get Collier her money,” Gallagher said, referring to discussions about holding a fundraiser or finding Collier legitimate work. “There was a lot of talk, but nothing was ever done.”

Meanwhile, Smith painted Belmont officials as “seeing crime and fraud around every corner,” who took Collier’s invoice to the District Attorney’s Office rather than asking King about it directly.

Closing arguments will conclude this morning, after which the jury will begin its deliberations. If convicted, King faces up to a year in jail.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

April 12, 2006 at 10:08 PM

Posted in Courts, Crime, San Carlos

Key witness Collier to testify in trial of San Carlos ex-mayor

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
April 6, 2006

Political consultant Margaret “Peg” Collier is expected to testify today in the case against former San Carlos Mayor Mike King, who is accused of attempting to defraud the South County Fire Protection Authority of $13,320.

In addition to being a key witness in King’s trial, a plea agreement Collier made in December 2005 requires her to testify against King. King is accused of telling Collier to submit invoices falsely claiming she helped South County firefighters find jobs — in order to recoup more than $15,000 she was owed for assisting in a failed parcel-tax campaign in the fall of 2003.

In a recording played in San Mateo County Superior Court on Thursday, Collier told District Attorney’s Office Inspector Mike Scheffler that she had made a mistake in submitting those invoices and thought they had been retracted.

“I told Mike, ‘I don’t think we can do this; talk to the Fair Political Practices Commission,’” Collier told Scheffler. She said she did not do the work described in the invoice and thought the invoice had been withdrawn.

In her recorded statement, Collier said the matter would have ended if former Belmont Mayor George Metropulos and Councilmember Dave Warden had not seen the invoice.

Warden testified Thursday that he learned in June of 2004 that former Belmont City Manager Jere Kersnar had received Collier’s false invoices two months earlier. Warden asked for copies and, along with former Councilmember George Metropulos and Councilmember Coralin Feierbach, took them to District Attorney Jim Fox that August, launching the fraud investigation.

Warden also testified that King told him in February or March of 2004 that he had found a method by which Collier could be paid the money she was owed.

“I didn’t like the debt, and I thought maybe there was something we could do — give her work related to the assessment,” Warden said. Although King and others suggested holding fundraisers to earn the money, that never happened, and Warden heard no more on the topic until he saw the invoices, he said Thursday.

Warden’s testimony continues today, after which Collier is expected to testify, according to Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe. King will take the stand early next week, along with character witnesses in his defense. If convicted, he faces up to a year in jail.

The trial is expected to conclude late next week. Collier’s sentencing is scheduled for April 27.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

April 6, 2006 at 10:10 PM

Posted in Courts, Crime, San Carlos

Floods plague San Carlos businesses

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Beth Winegarner
Daily News Staff Writer
January 6, 2006

San Carlos Chamber of Commerce President Sheryl Pomerenk has spent much of this week removing flood-soaked carpets from her offices and moving the agency’s belongings into storage.

The chamber headquarters, located on South Laurel Street near El Camino Real, has flooded five times in the past three years — including twice since Christmas, Pomerenk said. By Tuesday, it will have new vinyl floors that should fare better when the storms come again.

“We can sweep the water out, and it will dry faster,” she said.

This week, Pomerenk sent all of her staff members home to work on projects, and even had to turn down new members because everything was packed up. Replacing the flooring will cost $6,000, but she couldn’t estimate the cost to move belongings in and out of the building or to hire blowers to dry the walls.

“It’s so frustrating,” she said. “You don’t know who to blame, what to do, or how to pay for it.”

After 18 inches of water swamped the building in late 2004, San Carlos public works crews installed a backflow valve on the stormwater drain at Laurel Street and Saint Francis Way. The chamber office didn’t flood for some time after that, even though rains were heavier in January and February.

“It was designed to keep the creek water at high tide from coming back up the drain and down the street, and that has been working very well,” said Public Works Supervisor Paul Baker. But when the city gets a high tide combined with too much rain — as it did on Monday — only so much can be done.

Baker said the areas hardest hit by the New Year’s storms included parts of eastern San Carlos, particularly along Industrial Road. Kindercourt, a child-care center that recently moved into the former State Farm office on Laurel Street, also flooded, according to Pomerenk. Kindercourt officials would not comment.

San Carlos officials continue to work toward obtaining permits from the federal government to perform ongoing cleanup of vegetation and debris along flood-prone Cordilleras Creek, San Carlos Public Works Director Parviz Mokhtari told the Daily News last November.

Even so, public works crews must work constantly during storms to keep drains and catch basins clear of leaves, according to Baker.

“Even if it isn’t high tide, they plug things up,” he said. “We had guys on all the creeks, and we were very fortunate this last storm (that) we were able to keep the creeks from going over.”

This article originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily News.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 6, 2006 at 9:49 PM

Posted in San Carlos

Coach posts bail as investigation continues

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Beth Winegarner
Daily News Staff Writer
January 5, 2006

A San Carlos athletic teacher accused of secretly videotaping female students was released on $600,000 bail early yesterday as police investigators continued to comb through his computers for more evidence.

Neal Sato, 34, was arrested Tuesday and had posted bail by 1:45 a.m. Wednesday, according to media reports. The San Bruno resident was taken into custody by San Carlos Police, who believe he was secretly filming students while they changed clothes at Central Middle School, where he worked as athletic director.

Reached at home yesterday, Sato refused to comment on the situation surrounding his arrest.

It is unusual for a suspect to post bail so quickly, according to deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe. “That doesn’t happen too often in this business. It was a sizable bail bond.”

Police began investigating Sato’s activity Nov. 23 after a student came forward and said she thought he might have videotaped her while she undressed. “She could see the video camera,” according to San Carlos Police Cmdr. Sandra Spagnoli.

Sato allegedly picked specific students to change clothes in a room where he had staged cameras, according to Spagnoli. Police confiscated four of his computers and have already found 100 files containing images and video footage, some dating back to October of 2004.

Since Sato’s arrest, police have received dozens of calls from parents and students, some of whom were asked to change in a separate room, according to Spagnoli.

“We’re getting people who are saying, “I changed in that office,” so we’re looking at those kids first,” Spagnoli said.

He was arrested on six counts of lewd conduct, one for each student identified. If charged and convicted he could face at least 18 years in prison, eight years for the first count and two years for each additional count, according to Wagstaffe.

Police are working to identify the other girls depicted in those computer files, primarily by comparing their images with yearbook photos. As more are identified, the counts against Sato are likely to increase, according to police.

Sato also worked at Abbott Middle School in San Mateo, but so far all the girls who have been identified are current or former Central Middle School students, police said.

By the end of this week, investigators expect to be finished analyzing three computers seized in November. Another computer, seized Tuesday, will take some weeks to examine.

“There’s so much more work to do. We have a lot of videos to view and a lot of young girls to identify,” Spagnoli said.

Administrators at Central Middle School and at the San Carlos School District did not return calls for comment yesterday.

Sato is slated to appear in court Feb. 9 for his initial arraignment.

This article originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily News

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 5, 2006 at 9:43 PM

Posted in Crime, San Carlos

Athletic director arrested for lewd conduct

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Beth Winegarner
Daily News Staff Writer
January 4, 2006

A former Central Middle School athletics director was arrested yesterday by San Carlos Police on six counts of lewd acts with a child.

Neal Sato, 34, a San Bruno resident, was arrested yesterday on charges that he videotaped female students while they changed clothes, according to San Carlos Police Cmdr. Sandra Spagnoli. The investigation began Nov. 23 after an eighth-grader told police she thought he had been secretly videotaping her.

Officers searched Sato’s home and computers and allegedly found images depicting a number of unidentified students dressing and undressing, according to Spagnoli.

“Police believe that Sato would secrete a video camera in a room or office and tape females,” Spagnoli said in a written statement yesterday. They also believe he used his authority to direct certain students to change clothes in a particular room where he had hidden a camera.

Sato resigned from his post as the school’s athletic director last year, according to San Carlos School Board member Thomas Quiggle, who said he could not comment further on the situation. Central Middle School administrators and school-district officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Since November, investigators have been combing through Sato’s computers and found more than 100 deleted files containing images of female students changing into their athletic uniforms. Some of those files date back to October of 2004, according to Spagnoli.

Only some of those students have been identified, and police are hoping more will come forward.

“It’s a budding investigation,” said officer Mike Antone.

The San Carlos Police Department has set up a separate phone line for potential victims. Anyone with information may call (650) 802-4357 to report what they know.

This article originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily News.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 4, 2006 at 9:41 PM

Posted in Crime, San Carlos

As city mourns teen’s suicide, others call for bridge suicide barrier

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Beth Winegarner
Daily News Staff Writer
December 2, 2005

Students, teachers and family packed Carlmont High School’s Little Theater yesterday for a lunchtime ceremony to celebrate the life of Carlmont senior John William Skinner.

The event made it clear just how many lives the 17-year-old touched, including friends, teachers, classmates, family and supporters from across the Peninsula. Skinner was found dead Tuesday on the rocks near the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge, where he appears to have jumped, according to the California Highway Patrol.

“It was wonderful to see the tremendous outpouring of community support,” said Mark Olbert, president of the San Carlos School Board. “It’s sad that a young person with all that talent and energy and brains and potential died.”

Shortly before his death, Skinner sent cell-phone text messages to a number of his friends, telling them goodbye and saying they could have some of his belongings, including his guitar and photographs, according to classmate Nicole Giron. More than one said that Skinner told them he had “found the meaning of life.”

“He was an amazing kid — that’s the tragedy of it for all of us,” said Linda Stevenin, communications director for High Tech High Bayshore, whose son was friends with Skinner. “He was a sweet kid, and very smart.”

The teen is survived by his parents, David and Lucia, his brother, Joe, a San Carlos Charter Learning School student, and his sister, Caroline, a Carlmont graduate. Funeral services have not yet been announced, but the family plans to bury him in his homeland, Guatemala, according to Carlmont Principal Andrea Jenoff.

Skinner was one of the first students to attend the Charter Learning Center, starting in third grade and continuing through eighth grade before starting at Carlmont. He was a math and science buff, as well as a musician and soccer player, and in recent years was designing a computer game with some friends, according to Stevenin.

He was highly academic and founded a peace-based club at Carlmont called the Doves, Jenoff said.

While the adults in his life admired Stevenin, his peers relied on him for support. “He always made people laugh, and he was always there if you needed him,” Giron said.

“He was the main one we would go to when we needed help,” his friend Richard Jackson told the Daily News Wednesday.

As friends and family continue to mourn, Skinner’s death brings home the ongoing debate over building a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge. While many argue that a barrier would mar the aesthetics of the landmark, local mental-health workers say it’s long overdue.

Earlier this year, the Psychiatric Foundation of Northern California, representing 1,200 psychiatrists, convinced the bridge district board to embark on a $2 million study of a barrier; so far, $1.8 million has been raised.

Skinner was the twentieth person to jump from the bridge this year and the sixth under the age of 25 to do so, according to Mel Blaustein, president of the foundation. Eighty-seven percent of people who commit suicide by jumping from the bridge are Bay Area residents.

Bridge jumpers “tend to be impulsive,” Blaustein said. “They’re looking for a quick way out, but if you can prevent that, they’re usually happy to be alive.”

A recent study found that among 515 people who were pulled from the bridge during a serious attempt to jump, 94 percent did not subsequently commit suicide, according to foundation consultant Paul Muller.

“It’s been obvious in the psychiatric community for a long time that barriers are needed,” Muller said. “These deaths can be prevented.”

Teen suicides can inspire copycats
In the wake of a teen’s death, particularly from suicide, friends and classmates are more likely to become suicidal themselves, according to Michelle Joyce, manager of the San Mateo Crisis Center.

The crisis center is staffed by a number of teenage volunteers who counsel peers dealing with depression, suicidal thoughts and tough times, Joyce said. Some of those counselors will visit Carlmont High School next week to talk about warning signs, such as drastic changes in behavior, losing interest in hobbies, giving away prized possessions or increasing use of drugs and alcohol.

Counselors will also encourage frank dialogue about suicide. “A lot of times people shy away from the issue. We train our people to not be afraid to say, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?'” Joyce said.

The center offers a variety of resources for teens and families, including:
* A 24-hour hotline at (650) 579-0350
* An online chat Monday through Thursday, 4:30 to 9:30 p.m., at http://www.onyourmind.net
* Counseling for parents, with information at http://www.yfes.org

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 2, 2005 at 10:02 PM

Police uncover prostitution at massage business

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Beth Winegarner
Daily News Staff Writer
November 3, 2005

Allegations of prostitution have cropped up at an acupuncture clinic in San Carlos, where massage-permit regulations are more lenient than in neighboring Peninsula cities.

The doors were locked yesterday at the Evergreen Healing Care Center, located at 538A El Camino Real, where a sign explained the business was closed for a week’s vacation. A row of Chinese medicines and products lined the windows, which were otherwise blocked by Venetian blinds.

Police began their investigation of the business this summer after it was mentioned on http://www.myredbook.com, a Web site that advertises escort services. The site contained “messages indicating that prostitution activity was occurring at the business,” according to a search warrant from the San Carlos Police Department.

Officers watched Evergreen between July 29 and Aug. 5 and observed a number of men patronizing the business. On Aug. 31, an undercover officer was sent into the business, where he paid $60 after being solicited for “an act of prostitution,” said San Carlos Sgt. Doug Eckles.

Three employees there were arrested and later released, according to Eckles. They have not been formally charged, and detectives are still wrapping up their investigation.

“We are still trying to confirm ownership,” Eckles said. Once the investigation is complete, it will be up to the District Attorney”s office whether to file charges.

As Peninsula cities revise laws governing who is allowed to operate massage and bodywork businesses, San Carlos’s code remains relatively lenient. Although it does require a permit application and a police background check, it doesn’t require applicants to prove they have completed a certain number of hours of instruction.

Most cities in the Bay Area require massage practitioners to have 500 hours of training before they can obtain a permit to do business. But in Redwood City, for example, masseuses only need 70 hours under their belt.

“When one city has a lower standard than another, you will sometimes become the path of least resistance,” Redwood City police Sgt. Keith Harper, who handles the bulk of the city’s massage permits, told the Daily News in August.

So far, San Carlos’s relative leniency hasn’t caused much trouble — Evergreen is the first business to raise these kinds of questions, Eckles said.

A business permit for the Evergreen Healing Care Center was issued Jan. 28, 2005, to Jiang Yuhong of Foster City, according to San Carlos City Clerk Christine Boland. Yuhong obtained a license to operate a Chinese medical facility to offer acupuncture and acupressure, but not massage.

One June 22, a new permit of the same type was issued to Stanley Young, also of Foster City, and on June 30 a new application was filed with the Planning Department. That application has not yet been approved.

Young could not be reached for comment yesterday.

This article originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily News.

Written by Beth Winegarner

November 3, 2005 at 9:19 PM

Posted in Crime, San Carlos

“Hydrogen highway” gets on the road

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Beth Winegarner
Daily News Staff Writer
September 28, 2005

Pacific Gas & Electric will break ground this morning in San Carlos on its first gas pump for hydrogen-powered vehicles, the first stop in a proposed “hydrogen highway” on the Peninsula.

The PG&E station on Industrial Way was a natural choice for a alternative-fuel pump, according to Anthony Estrada, PG&E’s senior program manager for clean air transportation. It already pumps natural gas for use in vehicles.

“Our forecast is to have the station up and running by March of next year, but we have some fine-tuning to do,” Estrada said. “These are expensive cars, so we need to make sure they get high-quality fuel.”

The fuel would first be available to PG&E’s own fleet of hydrogen-powered cars and to the company’s partners, the California Fuel Cell Partnership and Ztek, a fuel cell manufacturer, both of which own such cars. But it will be some time before the pump would be available to the public, and by then, Estrada expects that commercial fuel companies will have also be selling hydrogen.

“We don’t want to undermine third parties that want to build stations and make a profit,” he said. “We’re not in the business of selling hydrogen.”

Officials in the City/County Association of Governments envision the site as part of a series of fuel stations stretching down the Peninsula, according to C/CAG’s executive director, Richard Napier. Other stations will be installed in Menlo Park and at San Francisco International Airport in the next two years.

By the time the PG&E pump is up and running, another at Menlo Park’s corporation yard should also be installed, Napier said. A third, at SFO, is also in the planning stages.

“What we have in mind is equally spaced pumps that fill in the highway for San Mateo County,” he said. “These pumps would be provided from San Francisco to northern Santa Clara County.”

Although C/CAG is not developing stations directly, it has worked with other agencies to locate grants and donations for them. A hydrogen fuel station can cost between $500,000 and $1 million, although the Menlo Park station will cost less because some of the equipment is being donated, Napier said.

San Carlos will also play host Saturday to a portion of the California Fuel Cell Partnership’s three-day “Fueling the Future” parade. At 8:30 a.m., a phalanx of alternative-fuel vehicles, fresh from stops in Sacramento, Berkeley and San Jose, will be on display at the corner of San Carlos Avenue and Holly Streets.

This article originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily News.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 28, 2005 at 8:56 PM

No conflict of interest for Grocott

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Beth Winegarner
Daily News Staff Writer
June 15, 2005

San Carlos Vice Mayor Matt Grocott’s stock holdings in Varian Medical do not make him liable for conflict of interest, according to the city’s attorney.

Varian Medical once owned the site near Holly and Industrial roads now being eyed by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation for a new facility in San Carlos. City officials are in ongoing talks with PAMF and will eventually approve or deny the foundation’s development plans.

Last month, Grocott was called to task for not disclosing his stock holdings, including those in Varian, to the City Clerk’s office.

According to the California Fair Political Practices Committee, publicly traded companies must show that they will gain or lose a minimum of $200,000 from an action before their stakeholders face a conflict-of-interest issue.

“It does not appear that Varian Medical has any remaining interest in the property,” Lanzone said. He learned the information from Alan Palter, an attorney for Varian.

Grocott’s stock disclosures became the focus of several media reports and a public discussion among City Council members at a meeting May 9.

The Vice Mayor had submitted a California Form 700 — a statement of economic interests — with San Mateo County when he became a member of the library joint powers authority. He thought that filing was sufficient, because the county has a larger jurisdiction than the city.

On May 13, he disclosed his holdings with San Carlos.

According to his paperwork, Grocott owns more than $10,000 in shares in Cisco Systems, UBS and Varian Medical. His holdings in Altria, Adobe Systems, Clorox, Dell Computer, Dow Chemical, Ingersoll Rand and General Electric are less than $10,000 each, and he owns an unknown number of shares in Chevron Texaco.

He is also a shareholder with his own firm, Grocott Design, and his wife owns more than $10,000 in shares in UBS.

This article originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily News.

Written by Beth Winegarner

June 15, 2005 at 9:23 PM

Posted in Politics, San Carlos