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Former Mayor's $1 Billion Gambling Spree Blamed on Grief and Brain Tumor


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Former San Diego mayor's Maureen O'ConnorIn February 2013, a former San Diego mayor's dirty little secret became public: she was addicted to gambling. Maureen O'Connorwas so severely addicted to gambling, in fact, that she spent nine years and $1 billion dollars playing video poker and other games at casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and her home town, San Diego. At the end of her $1 billion gambling spree, O'Connor lost somewhere around $13 million, although the exact amount is difficult to deduce, according to federal prosecutors.

The former mayor, who had accumulated substantial wealth due to her late husband Robert Peterson's Jack-in-the-Box fast food empire, blames her out-of-control habit and related criminal activity on abrain tumor for which she had surgery in 2011. Her attorney also claimed that her illegal and outrageous behaviors were caused by a psychological phenomenon known as "grief gambling".

Criminal Activity

O'Connor's problem may never have come to light if it weren't for the fact that, in addition to wagering and losing exorbitant amounts of her own money, she misappropriated money that wasn't actually hers and used it for gaming purposes (read more similar stories). O'Connor admits to siphoning $2 million out of her late husband's charity organization, the R.P. Foundation, to fund her habit, although she claims that she always intended to pay the money back. O'Connor's thefts drained her late husband's foundation, which once helped serve local San Diego charities like hospices and orphanages. The R.P. Foundation, now defunct, had been in operation since 1966.

Brain Tumor Blamed

O'Connor received surgery for a brain tumor in 2011. She claims that the tumor negatively affected her judgment and behavior, causing her to gamble unwisely and commit the heinous crime of laundering charity money.

Dr. Mark Norman, a UC San Diego professor of neuropsychiatry, has said that although there is no cut-and-dried correlation between brain tumors and gambling, there can be a correlation between brain tumors, impeded judgment, and risky behaviors. The side effects of a brain tumor greatly depend upon where the tumor is located in the brain, how big the tumor is, and whether the tumor can be safely removed without damaging other sensitive cognitive areas.

Also Cited: Grief Gambling

In addition to the brain tumor excuse, O'Connor's attorney blamed her crime, at least in part, on a phenomenon called "grief gambling." Grief gambling is a form of problem gambling. It is an unhealthy coping mechanism which occurs when a person who is unable to process grief turns to the casino or other money-wagering games for comfort. O'Connor lost her husband, Peterson, in 1994 and a string of other loved ones after that. Her attorney said that the stress of her losses was so overwhelming that she turned to casino games, instead of healthier coping mechanisms, to soothe her emotional aches.

What is Grief Gambling?

Grief gambling (avoid dealing with unbearable pain)Grief gambling is a real psychological phenomenon that can happen to people who aren't coping well with losses. It often occurs in elderly adults who have suffered more losses than the average younger person. It is an avoidance tactic which allows a person who has experienced loss to avoid dealing withunbearable pain. People deeply entrenched in grief gambling are said to be in denial of their problems.

This behavioral issue is not just a matter of a person deciding to go to the casino and blow a bunch money; it has a biological basis. When people gamble and win, dopamine is released within the brain. Dopamine is a mood booster. It is also a natural pain killer which, when stimulated inappropriately, can form a temporary band-aid over deeper problems. The syndrome of grief gambling is especially insidious because gaming is a socially accepted pastime, one that is not regulated by authorities and can even be done within the privacy of a home, in front of a computer screen.

A Break in Character

Acquaintances of O'Connor gave character witness that she is not the type of person to commit such dishonest crimes. The former mayor, sometimes called a "goody two shoes", would reportedly become drunk on just a few sips of champagne. Her greatest known vice, before this addiction came to light, was that during her stint as mayor she would occasionally escape City Hall to watch movies.

O'Connor's Plea Deal

O'Connor pleaded not guilty in federal court to the crime of misappropriating funds from her late husband's charity. She admitted to taking the money, but blamed her missteps on the brain tumor and psychological grief gambling, saying she was a victim of her circumstances. She added that she always intended to pay the money back to the foundation, and still does.

In exchange for her plea, O'Connor's final judgment was deferred for two years. In the mean time, according to court documents, the 66-year-old must pay back the $2 million owed to the R.P. Foundation and must also seek treatment for her addiction.

Critics: O'Connor Received a Soft Punishment

Critics of the O'Connor plea deal say that regular citizens, those who are not former mayors or the surviving wives of wealthy business tycoons, would not receive such preferential treatment in a court of law. They say that theft is theft, and that O'Connor received a soft sentence due to her identity. This argument has been used against other politicians and celebrities who commit crimes as well; critics say the O'Connor story is just another instance of a privileged person being shielded from the realities of the real world.

Sympathizers: O'Connor Deserves Compassion

O'Connor sympathizers would argue that the former mayor was a victim of psychological trauma anddopamine addiction, and that she should have the chance to redeem herself before going to jail. They would say that O'Connor fell prey to the evils of addiction and the pain of grief, and that she should be be rehabilitated in spite of the magnitude of financial loss she caused the R.P. Foundation and the city of San Diego.