James Tong, owner of Charter Properties and a long-time investor and contributor to political and land issue campaigns in Pleasanton, pleaded no contest Friday to one count of submitting fraudulent documentation related to protecting at-risk animal species.
Tong took a plea deal with the state's Attorney General's Office and admitted to the count on the condition that he serves a year of probation and pay $650,000 in fines.
He also must agree to preserving 107 acres of land in Contra Costa County in a conservation easement as part of his no contest plea for the count, which will be reduced to a misdemeanor in a year.
Tong has been a contributor to several political campaigns in Pleasanton, most notably to the unsuccessful efforts by Erlene DeMarcus to win a City Council seat in the 2012 municipal election. According to reports, donations to her campaign totaled $7,125 from Tong and his family, as well as another $1,000 from his business Landmark Exchange Management which is owned by Tong
He was also backed by former Mayor Jennifer Hosterman in his 2002 bid to tear down the then-empty Vintage Hills shopping center and build 148 three-story townhouses and a corner convenience market on that five-acre property. The plan was ultimately rejected by the City Council and the center is now a bustling neighborhood retail destination with New Leaf Community Markets as its anchor grocery.
Later, he was as the center of controversy again when he and his Charter Properties firm sought city approval for a 98-home development on a 562-acre site atop Kottinger Hills on property owned by Jennifer, Frederic and Kevin Lin. With Tong as an investor partner, they downsized the plan to 51 homes, but still encountered the wrath of nearby neighborhoods who successfully halted the project in a voter referendum. In the end, after years of legal action, the State Court of Appeal ruled the development could not be built.
In his latest skirmish with the law, Tong faced off with Dublin city officials over Dublin Ranch North, the name of the planned housing development at issue. It consists of 157 acres in Dublin near Tassajara Creek.
In June 2009, city officials determined that the development of a 30-acre portion of the property might have potential impact on the California tiger salamander. The California tiger salamander is listed as threatened under the state's Endangered Species Act.
Officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife also said the red-legged frog would be potentially impacted, though Gruel said this animal species was never at issue in this case.
Tong was required to purchase offsite mitigation credits to counter the effects of building in the habitat of a state-protected species, department officials said.
Department officials said Tong submitted conservation bank payment receipts - totaling more than $3.2 million to the city of Dublin - that were later found to be fraudulent. He then graded around 4 acres between July and December 2012.
Wildlife Management LLC, Tong's company, sent the city two bank payment receipts for Dublin Ranch North plus a Dublin Ranch West, purporting to represent mitigation credits for two both sites, Gruel said.
The original payment receipts had been altered to make it appear mitigation receipts covered one of the sites when it didn't, Gruel said.
Tong entered his plea for this altered document, though Gruel said he faced many other counts that were thrown out by a judge in preliminary hearings during the two-plus year investigation.
"Tong would like to apologize for his error in judgment," Gruel said. "Tong accepts full responsibility for the mistakes that were made in this instance and has taken steps to ensure that they will not happen again."