SACRAMENTO — Attorneys presented final arguments Thursday in Bill Honig's conflict-of-interest trial, with the prosecution comparing the state schools chief to someone who would rob a bank to help a friend and the defense describing him as an ethical public official whose only interest was helping children.
"He may have started out with the greatest intentions in the world, and I hope he did," Chief Assistant Atty. Gen. George H. Williamson told the Superior Court jury. "(But) he violated the law, just like the bank robber did."
The state superintendent of public instruction is charged with four counts of felony conflict of interest in connection with $337,509 in state Department of Education contracts.
The contracts paid local educators to set up parental involvement programs in the schools in conjunction with a nonprofit corporation run by Honig's wife, which was established to provide the programs.
Prosecutors say the educators worked directly for the Quality Education Project, run by Nancy Honig, and that their work allowed the organization to prosper and pay her $100,000 a year as well as rent office space in the Honigs' San Francisco home.
The defense maintains that no money from the contracts benefited either QEP or the Honigs. Moreover, the defense claims, the contracts ended up costing the company more than $600,000 of its own money that it raised from private donors and spent in the schools.
Williamson, who spoke for slightly more than two hours, admitted that Honig was not charged with fraud and referred to the matter as a "tragic case." Nevertheless, he warned the jurors against an "emotional overlay" that he said could improperly benefit the schools chief.
"You're going to have natural feelings of sympathy toward Mr. Honig," he said. "Heck, I feel sorry for Mr. Honig. . . . You're going to have trouble because of that emotional overlay."
But in his closing statement and again in his rebuttal to the defense summation, Williamson bore in on Honig as a man who was so driven by his desire to put his wife's program into practice that he "failed in his public responsibility."
"He wanted it so badly to occur that he just lost sight of (his responsibility). It's sad. He failed in his public responsibility," Williamson said.
Later, he implied that Honig was "so obsessed" with helping schoolchildren through his wife's company that it amounted to a hidden character flaw.
Referring to Honig's authorization of the allegedly tainted contracts, Williamson asked the jury: "Why did he do it?
"He wanted to do what he thought was a good thing," Williamson said. "He believed in his wife and he believed in the company.
"But he lost sight of the fact that he couldn't do it ethically. . . . He was so blinded that he failed to do the things that a responsible public official is required to do," Williamson said.
Williamson, a short, stocky man with a bulldog's tenacity, sent a murmur through the packed courtroom when he alluded to convicted killer Charles Manson in maintaining that acquaintances of Honig might not be aware of his alleged character flaw.
"Before Charles Manson killed the Biancas and Sharon Tate, he probably never killed anybody," Williamson said. "So those murders were probably out of character."
Chief defense attorney Patrick Hallinan, known for flamboyance and emotion, spoke to the jury for an hour and 40 minutes.
Hallinan scoffed at the prosecution, accusing it of failing to understand the case because it was not a typical criminal matter.
"They don't have a body on the floor," he said. "They don't have a stolen television set. They don't have a set of fingerprints. That is what they deal with.
"This (QEP) is not a program that is sold," he added. "This is something that is given free to the kids of California."
Hallinan said it was QEP that was exploited by the Department of Education, not the other way around. He said Honig had to talk his wife into trying QEP programs in certain high schools because she was afraid the the methods would not work above the elementary school level.
"Bill Honig, because he knew the boss, was able to exploit the corporation," Hallinan said.
Judge James L. Long has prohibited mention in court of Honig's claim that the charges against him are politically motivated, but Hallinan managed to drop that contention into his remarks to the jury.
"When he (Honig) proposed to go into cooperation with QEP, he is told by his advisers: 'Don't do it, because it's politically dumb,' " Hallinan said. "Then he says: 'Politics be damned, if it benefits the kids.' "
"And you know his advisers were right," continued Hallinan. "What should have been a political battle became a battle in court."
The jury is expected to begin its deliberations today.