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O'Connor Exclusive: Calls gambling 'electronic heroin'

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(CBS 8) - Maureen O'Connor was a beloved former mayor of San Diego. But her life took a stunning turn after it was revealed she gambled away a fortune.

Prosecutors believe she won and lost more than $1 billion playing video poker and raided a charity foundation of $2 million to feed her gambling habit.

O'Connor is now bankrupt and living with her sister following her fall from grace in the city she loves so much. The 66-year-old explains only to News 8 what she believes led to her addiction, which has left her embarrassed, ashamed and afraid.

"I couldn't do it in private, very public. If I had my wish, I wished it would be Gamblers Anonymous, not 'here's Maureen's story,' she said.

She says her story plays out in a pair of very different acts: "Maureen one" was mayor of San Diego. Her second act has made national headlines, a sad tale of gambling and flailed fortunes.

As the widow of Jack in the Box founder Robert Peterson, she inherited as much as $50 million, according to federal prosecutors.

"I used some of that fortune to help people. And then, some of that fortune, when I started to become 'Maureen two,' went into an addiction of gambling. I lost a fortune and for that I'm sorry," O'Connor said.

Her game of choice was video poker. She was such a big spender, casinos in San Diego County and Las Vegas would lavish her with gifts to keep her coming. She says she would have come anyway.

"It was like electronic heroin. You know, the more you did, the more you needed and the more it wasn't satisfied," she said.

O'Connor says she could lose more than $100,000 in one day. She became increasingly desperate, so she began selling off properties to raise millions more. They included a house in La Jolla right by neighbor Mitt Romney.

"And only after all that was done, did she then go and raid a private foundation of over $2 million," federal prosecutor Phillip Halpern said.

O'Connor took the money from her husband's charity, calling it a loan, and promising to pay it back. Federal prosecutors called it money laundering, and say she won and lost a staggering amount.

"We're talking about billions with a B. It's not against the law to bankrupt yourself. The violation was that she raided that charity of $2 million," Halpern said.

For O'Connor, now penniless, it's a public humiliation. During her six-year mayoral career, she was always in control. Now her gambling was out of control.

"I thought I could beat that machine. And when it got worse, I didn't know I had the silent grenade in my head that could go off at any time," she said.

The silent grenade was a golf ball-sized tumor doctors removed from her brain. They discovered it two years ago, when she started hallucinating. She says she believes the slow-growing tumor contributed to her gambling addiction.

"It's not an excuse for my gambling, but I think that was, yes, a part of it. You lose your sense of control," she said. "After the tumor was taken out and I started healing, I have no desire to gamble."

Even though O'Connor's neuropsychologist says the tumor could have affected her behavior, federal prosecutors remain very skeptical.

"She began her gambling run in 2001, a decade earlier. It would have to be a pretty slow-growing tumor," Halpern said.

The federal prosecutor says the Justice Department will drop the charges if Maureen O'Connor repays the charity and gets help for gambling addiction.

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