SACRAMENTO — The defense in schools chief Bill Honig's conflict-of-interest trial produced a top state lawyer Thursday who testified that he had declared it legal for Honig's wife to work on tax-supported parental involvement programs in the public schools.
Joseph R. Symkowick, chief counsel of the Department of Education, testifying out of the presence of the jury, said he knew few details of Nancy Honig's activities at the time he gave the advice to former Deputy Supt. of Public Instruction James Smith in 1985.
But Symkowick said his advice would have been the same had he known that Nancy Honig was operating her own nonprofit company to provide parental involvement programs and that the organization paid her a salary and rent for office space in the Honigs' home.
Bill Honig is on trial in Superior Court on four counts of felony conflict of interest stemming from an indictment alleging that he improperly authorized $337,509 in state contracts paying local educators to set up parent involvement programs in the schools for his wife's company, the Quality Education Project.
The defense argues that the four educators named in the indictment were working for the state Department of Education and not for QEP. The defense also maintains that the Honigs did not benefit directly or indirectly from the state contracts and that Nancy Honig's salary and the funds to pay rent came from private contributions.
Symkowick described giving the legal advice to Smith in a "casual" but "serious" conversation.
"On the way either coming from or going to lunch, Jim asked me: . . . 'Nancy Honig is involved in working with some schools in the East Bay and I'm concerned about that and I would like to know if you have any problem with it.' "
Smith had testified previously that he told his boss, Bill Honig, he was afraid that there would be political fallout because of Nancy Honig's involvement in the program, but he said the superintendent had asked only if his wife was benefiting financially and whether the program was legal.
Symkowick testified that he advised Smith that Nancy Honig's activity was legal after the deputy superintendent told him the public money involved was being used for its stated purpose and that she was receiving none of the funds either "directly or indirectly."
Attorneys for Bill Honig are asking Judge James L. Long to instruct the jury that it is a valid defense to the charges if the superintendent of public instruction "reasonably and honestly" believed it was legal to authorize the contracts.
Long took the matter under submission.
Earlier in the day, prosecutors rested their case after presenting 20 witnesses in a prolonged attempt to trace the history of the three contracts and to show that the Honigs benefited from them indirectly because QEP allegedly grew and prospered by paying consultants with public funds.
Linda Page, a former principal in the Pasadena Unified School District--and the prosecution's star witness--insisted under cross-examination by defense attorney Patrick Hallinan that she was paid by public funds to work for--not with--QEP.
She testified that Nancy Honig told her that QEP could save money if the consultants were paid by the Department of Education rather than by the organization.
Page, who at one time worked directly for QEP as executive director, left the organization in 1989.
The defense attempted to portray her as a disgruntled former employee who was seeking revenge after losing a power struggle with Nancy Honig.
Page denied that the women had a falling out.
The defense is scheduled to begin its case before the jury next week.