Superintendent of Capistrano Schools Denies Cover-Up

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District on Monday denied charges of a conspiracy to cover up use of district funds in a special election campaign last year and challenged the district attorney's office to bring the matter to trial.

Supt. Jerome R. Thornsley said the district provided "a wealth of information" to prosecutors detailing its involvement in the campaign for Measure A, a 1989 ballot initiative, including opinions from the district's lawyers and the Orange County Department of Education allowing the district to promote the election.

Thornsley questioned why charges in the case have not been filed despite the yearlong probe.

"They (prosecutors) have the attitude, and I don't know whether it's politically motivated or not, that you're guilty from Day One and we're going to find the evidence," Thornsley said.

"We bent over backwards to give them all of the material during the first year (of the investigation). If they felt we were violating the law, fine. Let them take action, and we'll defend our position."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Wallace J. Wade, who is conducting the investigation, was not available for comment. He is investigating charges that the district misused public funds in approving a secret "bonus incentive plan" for school principals who brought out the necessary two-thirds vote needed to pass Measure A, which would have raised property taxes for new school construction in the district. The measure failed at the polls.

Thornsley acknowledged that principals who "worked hard on the election" were considered for bonuses, but denied that bringing in "yes" votes was a prerequisite for extra pay.

"I talked to the D.A. extensively about that," Thornsley said. "One of the things we made clear (to principals) was that they were not to advocate a yes vote. We thought we could reward anyone who worked hard on any issue. Where in the law does it say that you can't give merit pay for a particular issue?"

But Thornsley did not dispute prosecutors' charges that he tried to keep the incentive plan secret. He said he feared that public knowledge of possible bonuses would "contaminate" the election and that opponents of the measure "would make that the whole issue of the campaign."

Minutes from the school board's closed sessions revealed Thornsley's recommendation to cancel the bonuses "should the incentive pay issue become public."

Those minutes also noted that the Board of Trustees voted "unanimously to authorize the superintendent to recommend (principals) for incentive stipends during 1989 as a result of (them) achieving 66 2/3 yes votes in their areas."

Michael Grob, a Sacramento attorney representing the district, said that the Board of Trustees only authorized Thornsley to tell principals that the board might consider campaign work among other criteria used during bonus and salary review and that district records do not indicate that bonuses were paid based on yes votes within a principal's jurisdiction.

"To the best of my recollection, Thornsley said that they reviewed people for their salary increases, and in some cases (campaign work) may have been a factor they discussed," Grob said.

Thornsley said the district's actions were based on legal opinions from the Sacramento law firm of Kronich, Moskovitz, Tiedemann & Girard, and from Ronald Wenkart, a senior attorney for the county Department of Education. The Sacramento firm advised the district that the state Education Code "allows the school district to expend public funds for special elections," but Thornsley said Wenkart advised him against using district funds to advance the district's position, Thornsley said.

"We took the position that we were going to follow (Wenkart's) opinion, that we would promote the election, but we would assiduously avoid advocating a yes vote," Thornsley said. He added that all brochures prepared by the district were forwarded to Wenkart for review. Wenkart was not available for comment.

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