4 Orange School Trustees Charged With Misconduct

Times Staff Writer

The Orange County Grand Jury announced Tuesday that it has charged four of the Orange Unified School District’s seven board members with “willful misconduct” in office in connection with alleged bid rigging by a former district employee.

The unusual action, which is aimed at removing the board members from office, is not a criminal indictment and carries no criminal penalties or fines. The board members are charged under a rarely used state law which allows a judge to remove elected officials for misconduct, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Martin G. Engquist.

The grand jury charged that school board members Robert James Elliott, Ruth C. Evans, Joe C. Cherry and Eleanore C. Pleines failed to follow all bid and construction procedures required by state laws, thus enabling a former maintenance supervisor to award building contracts in exchange for gifts or services from 1981-84.


The four board members didn’t personally benefit from or have any part in the alleged crimes, Engquist pointed out.

But Engquist said the four board members performed their duties so poorly that the grand jury believed that the alleged inattention was “willful misconduct in office.” He said the accusation against the board members, in effect, is that they weren’t minding the store.

Asked for his reaction Tuesday, Elliott said only that “I have been told not to make any comment.” Evans, Cherry and Pleines did not return telephone calls from The Times.

The grand jury’s charge will lead to a trial in Orange County Superior Court, and, if the four are found guilty, the judge will dismiss them from office, Engquist said. The four are scheduled to appear July 10 in Superior Court Department 5 in Santa Ana.

The three other board members of Orange Unified were not elected until after the alleged bid rigging had taken place, Engquist said. They are President William Steiner, Sandy Englander and Russell Barrios. A grand jury official said Tuesday that those trustees are considered totally blameless.

District board members are elected to four-year terms and receive a salary of $750 a month.


The “willful misconduct” charge against the other four trustees stems from alleged bid rigging from 1981 to 1984, purportedly masterminded by former school district maintenance supervisor Steven L. Presson. The grand jury on April 1 indicted Presson, his wife and two Orange contractors who formerly did business with Orange Unified School District for allegedly conspiring to misappropriate public funds. The contractors are William A. Gustafson and Ronald Brock. That case has not gone to trial.

According to the indictments, Presson had “an elaborate scheme” by which he rigged bids for school repairs and reconstruction in order that the work would go to certain contractors. Those contractors, in turn, gave Presson and his wife gifts of money, property or services, the indictments said.

No figures have been made public on the total dollar amount of goods and services that allegedly went to the Pressons. The allegedly rigged contracts totaled more than $3 million, according to the indictments.

Presson resigned from his school district position in December, 1984, after an investigation launched by Kenneth Brummel, former district superintendent. Brummel was fired by the school board last October, but the board said Brummel’s dismissal had nothing to do with his call for a police investigation of the school district.

The Orange Police Department and the Orange County district attorney’s office started their investigation of the Orange Unified School District because of Brummel’s intervention, Engquist said Tuesday.

At the time the inquiry was launched, very little was made public about what discrepancies were occurring in the district. School district officials, Orange police and the district attorney’s office all declined to elaborate on the investigation.

The first details of alleged wrongdoing within the district surfaced publicly last July 9, when the Orange Police Department filed search warrant affidavits in Superior Court.

The grand jury said in a press release Tuesday that the four board members were accused of “willful misconduct” after six weeks of hearings into alleged bid rigging in the Orange Unified School District. More than 70 witnesses and 2,500 exhibits were involved in the hearings, the grand jury said.

“The misconduct stems from failure to take appropriate action to protect the school district properties, as well as their failure to obey various Educational Code requirements concerned with the awarding, supervising and execution of construction contracts for alterations of school buildings between 1980 and 1984,” the press release said.

Steiner, the current board president, issued a statement Tuesday deploring the grand jury action.

“I’m disappointed that the grand jury came to this conclusion,” he said. “It is totally unrealistic for members of boards of education, city councils or county supervisors, for that matter, to be expected to monitor the day-to-day administrative details of a multimillion-dollar operation. This is clearly the responsibility of a school superintendent, city manager or county administrative officer and their staffs.

“The implications of the grand jury’s action are far-reaching. Good people will be discouraged from running for public office and exposing themselves and their families to this kind of potential liability.

“These four school board members are respected members of the community, with a deep commitment to public education. Year after year, the voters have shown their faith and trust in them by reelecting them to public office. The ultimate evaluation of their conduct in office should be determined by the voters, not by the courts.”

John Ikerd, who succeeded Brummel earlier this year as district superintendent, said: “I’m surprised by the accusations as, legally, school boards in the State of California are responsible for establishing the policies for their districts, and then it’s up to the superintendent and staff to perform the day-to-day activities necessary to administer those policies.”

The four board members accused of “willful misconduct” all have lengthy records of service with the school district. Elliott was first elected in 1961 and served until 1965. He was elected again in 1969 and has been reelected continually since then.

Cherry has been on the board continually since 1973, Pleines since 1968 and Evans since 1969.