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Technicality in Law Cited : Charges Against Orange School Trustees Dismissed

November 14, 1987|BILL BILLITER | Times Staff Writer

A Superior Court judge Friday dismissed on a technicality "willful misconduct" charges against three Orange Unified School District trustees.

The trustees, Ruth C. Evans, Joe Cherry and Robert J. Elliott, were accused by the 1986-87 Orange County Grand Jury of not supervising contracts closely enough and thus allowing a $3-million bid-rigging scheme to occur in 1981-84.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Donald A. McCartin ruled that the civil charges--the penalty for which would have been removal from office--involved events that occurred too long ago for prosecution now.

The dismissal came after the defense attorney, Charles Lee, argued that the trustees cannot be prosecuted because they are no longer holding the same office. Lee noted that California courts have long held that "an elected office" is the term to which the person was elected.

Lee said the allegations against the three trustees all involve their term of office in 1981-84. The three completed that four-year term of office in 1985 and were reelected to new four-year terms. Thus, argued Lee, the trustees cannot be threatened with being ousted from a term of office they no longer hold.

McCartin agreed and dismissed the charges.

The prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Martin G. Engquist, said he will appeal the dismissal.

"Today's decision in no way vindicates the trustees, because the action did not address the merits of this case in any form or fashion," he said.

Engquist said after the court hearing that he disagrees with McCartin's ruling. He said he believes a law enacted by the Legislature in 1971 gives prosecutors up to six years to bring charges against officeholders accused of misconduct. Engquist said the grand jury's action against the trustees fell within those six years.

Lee, the trustees' attorney, said in a separate interview that he doesn't believe the 1971 law applies to elected officeholders, but only to those appointed to office.

The "willful misconduct" charge that had been pending against them is a little-used civil action. The charge requires a jury trial; if the jury finds the defendants guilty, the judge must remove the defendants from public office. No other penalty is possible.

Fourth Trustee Resigned

The grand jury in June originally cited four incumbent school board members. The fourth trustee, Eleanore Pleines, resigned July 17. Pleines had testified to the grand jury that she had long wanted an investigation of irregularities in school district spending. Moreover, when she resigned, Pleines said she didn't want school district tax dollars used to defend her.

As it turned out, the seven-member school board voted not to use tax money to defend any of the trustees. A fund drive subsequently was started by supporters of the trustees to raise money for their defense.

The grand jury action against the trustees reportedly alarmed many school board members throughout California. The California School Boards Assn. in Sacramento said it was carefully watching the case.

Other school board members said the implication of the Orange Unified case is that school board members could be charged with misconduct simply because they believed and trusted employees.

But the grand jury and the Orange County district attorney's office said that school board members are expected to watch over public money spent by school districts. The grand jury charged that the four Orange Unified trustees had failed to do their jobs properly because they didn't review contracts sufficiently and follow the procedures of state law.

Charges Pending

Criminal charges are still pending against four defendants accused of taking part in a $3-million bid-rigging scheme. Those four defendants are a former district employee, his wife and two former contractors in Orange who did business with the school district.

The grand jury charged that Steven Presson, former school district maintenance supervisor, and his wife, Elizabeth, got kickbacks because Presson masterminded a scheme to divert school repair contracts to selected contractors.

The two former contractors, William A. Gustafson and Ronald Brock, have been indicted along with the Pressons. The four face criminal charges of illegally diverting public money. They are scheduled for arraignment Dec. 18 in Orange County Superior Court.

Lee, who is with the Los Angeles law firm of Tuttle and Taylor, said he is certain that the three trustees he defended would have been found innocent had their case gone to trial next month, as scheduled.

Orange Unified School District Supt. John Ikerd on Friday issued a statement that praised the dismissal of the charges against the trustees.

"We are pleased the trustees have been spared the enormous burden of a trial, although we believe it would have resulted in an acquittal and a vindication of their responsible performance of their duties," he said.

"It is time, however, to look forward to the future and continue to make the school district one of the finest in the country."

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