Visalia man pleads no contest to Clovis union theft
A Clovis union treasurer admitted Thursday to taking more than $150,000 from his union when he pleaded no contest to a felony embezzlement charge in Fresno County Superior Court.
John Morton Watson, 38, of Visalia, remains free until his April sentencing.
Judge Alan Simpson said he will evaluate Watson’s probation report to determine his sentence.
Simpson said he is encouraged by Watson’s efforts to repay all the money he stole from the Clovis Firefighters Association.
The judge said Watson has repaid all but about $20,000 to the union.
Watson embezzled just over $160,000 from the union between 2004 and 2011, according to Clovis Police and Fresno County District Attorney’s reports.
Joe Altschule, Watson’s lawyer, said he is hopeful Watson will get probation.
He said Watson has almost completely repaid the union.
“That’s a show of good faith, and I think the court will take that into consideration,” Altschule said.
Sentencing was delayed six months to allow time for the judge to evaluate the probation report and for Watson to finish repaying the union, Altschule said.
The union wants to be paid back and likely will not pursue any further legal action against Watson, said Tim Lesmeister, the association’s incoming president.
“The biggest issue was getting our money back and making our union whole,” he said.
But union members wanted Watson prosecuted, even if he gets sentenced only to probation.
“He betrayed our trust and he betrayed the public trust, but we are realists, too,” Lesmeister said. “We know with jail overcrowding, early releases and a white-collar crime that he may get probation.”
Watson worked as a Clovis Fire Department training officer and was a sworn Clovis firefighter for 12 years. He resigned in January.
Watson told investigators he took the money because of personal hardship but borrowed about $60,900 from his parents to repay the union’s treasury.
One of the issues, Altschule said, was that Watson’s wife had been hospitalized and lost her income.
The city’s database said Watson’s salary was $107,929 last year.
By Marc Benjamin