Ever since he was indicted on state felony conflict of interest charges in March, state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig has been blaming his troubles on a "right-wing conspiracy," organized by a "cabal of conservatives."
Honig and his supporters said the indictment was engineered by members of the State Board of Education, a few legislators and legislative staff members, and some fundamentalist religious leaders. They believe that this "cabal" pressured Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, a conservative Republican, into pursuing the investigation of Honig, a Democrat.
"There's a group that's out to get me," Honig said in a recent interview. "They don't like me. They don't like what I believe in. And they found a willing attorney general because there's a powerful wing within the Republican Party that Dan Lungren wants to be supportive of him."
But interviews by The Times suggest that although there has been growing animosity toward Honig among political and religious conservatives in recent years, these forces played at most a minor role in bringing about his indictment. Honig's opponents were organized and accused him of wrongdoing, but neither Honig nor his backers have found any evidence that there was improper influence on the investigation that led to his indictment.
Lungren has vigorously denied that politics played any role in the Honig case, noting that the case was developed by veteran investigators who have worked in several administrations, Democratic and Republican.
Lungren also noted that the inquiry into Honig's relationship with the Quality Education Project--his wife's program that was the basis of the indictment--was started by his Democratic predecessor, John K. Van de Kamp.
The superintendent is charged with benefiting from $337,509 in contracts that four California school districts had with QEP, a parental involvement program that was run for many years by Honig's wife, Nancy, out of their home in San Francisco.
The case is scheduled to go to trial in January.
Some Honig allies remain convinced that he is the victim of a right-wing plot.
"It's not a conspiracy that you could prove in court," said Dan Chernow, a Los Angeles theater chain executive and former member of the State Board of Education, "but I don't think it's coincidence that all these people have come together on all these issues at the same time."
Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin (D-Union City), chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, said: "I don't know if there is a conspiracy but I do know there is a lot of hatred on the right for Supt. Honig and there are certain patterns here that are disturbing."
"People on the far right were looking for anything they could find to get him," said Mike Hudson, vice president of People for the American Way, a liberal constitutional rights organization. "I think they stumbled across this one (QEP) as one of many ways to discredit Honig and so far this is the one that has stuck."
Although Honig allies have scant evidence connecting his political enemies directly with the indictment, they cite a history of rising political opposition to Honig.
Honig has tangled with religious conservatives, especially those who believe in the biblical version of mankind's origins and not in the theory of evolution, almost since the moment he was elected superintendent of public instruction in 1982.
He led the fight to emphasize evolution and ignore creationism in state-approved science textbooks.
Honig also tried unsuccessfully to strip state approval from the Institute for Creation Research, a small school in San Diego County that awards master's degrees in biology, geology, physics and science education, taught in what Henry Morris, president of the institute, called "a creationist framework."
At the same time, Honig has come under increasing attack from political conservatives, especially since a bitter 1986 battle with former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian over state funding for schools.
When the superintendent led the successful 1988 campaign for Proposition 98, which guarantees schools and community colleges about 40% of state general fund revenues, his standing with Republicans dropped even lower. And when Honig changed his registration from independent to Democrat and rumors began to circulate that he might run for governor in 1990, warfare broke out.
"Honig became more and more the most vocal critic of Deukmejian and Deukmejian was the darling of the right wing of the party," said Joe Holsinger, Honig's chief political operative. "Honig became more of a target than the Democratic leaders. They (conservative Republicans) saw him as a devil figure."
One center of opposition was the Republican minority caucus in the Assembly, which was dominated by strong conservatives. Honig has singled out Janet Jamieson, former minority consultant for the Assembly Education Committee, as "one of the people who was out to get me."
Jamieson, who now works for the state Department of Industrial Relations, declined to be interviewed for this story.
As Deukmejian appointees gradually took control of the State Board of Education, Honig faced a new battleground. Instead of largely ignoring the 11-member group, Honig increasingly had to contend with critics on the board.
His special nemesis was Joseph D. Carrabino, a retired UCLA management professor who was appointed to the board in 1986 and whose blunt, sometimes intemperate remarks often were aimed at Honig.
Carrabino called the superintendent an "education czar," whose "one-man rule" was wasteful and ineffective. Carrabino charged that Honig's lax leadership had created opportunities for corruption and rip-offs within the large state Department of Education.
As board president in 1990 and 1991, Carrabino headed a majority that insisted on sharing educational decision-making with Honig. When he refused, the board sued the superintendent. The case is in the state Court of Appeal, where briefs have been filed but no hearings have been held.
In this atmosphere, some board members began questioning Honig's ties to QEP. Not satisfied with Nancy Honig's explanations at a February, 1991, meeting, board member Joseph Stein asked the state Fair Political Practices Commission, then the attorney general, to investigate.
Though the attorney general already was investigating QEP, Honig and his allies believe that Stein's request played an important role in turning up the heat on the investigation.
Carrabino and Stein repeatedly have denied being part of a plot against Honig, insisting that their efforts have been directed toward improving the performance of the state's public schools and pointing out wrongdoing by Honig and his top aides.
But another State Board of Education member, who asked not to be identified, said: "In the summer of 1989, our discussions began to have more of a vindictive tone toward Bill Honig. They would say: 'We've got all this stuff on Honig and we're going to get him.' That's when it became clear to me this was a get-Honig movement, not an educational matter."
On at least one occasion, Carrabino and Stein met in Sacramento with David Llewelyn, director of the Western Center for the Study of Law and Religious Freedom; with Jamieson, the Assembly Education Committee's minority consultant, and with others who were exploring possible legal action against Honig.
An FBI agent who was asked to attend the meeting said he heard nothing to suggest that Honig was guilty of any federal crimes and told the others that.
The meeting reportedly was called by Fred Boeger, a physically imposing man who has operated as a mysterious anti-Honig crusader for much of the last two years.
Honig believes that Boeger has been an important part of the conspiracy against him but is uncertain about the motive.
"Is this an individual vendetta on his part or is this organized?" Honig asked. "Who is paying him?"
Boeger, 44, said he has no regular job but is supported financially by "loans from friends," who, like him, believe that California's schools are "in an advanced state of collapse" and that Honig and other state Department of Education officials are responsible.
Boeger once ran a boys' ranch and a boys' home in Chico. He also ran for the school board there in 1975 and lost decisively.
After that, he regularly attended school board meetings, where he "made outrageous statements and nit-picked every issue," said Mary Anne Houx, who was then on the Chico School Board and is a Butte County supervisor.
Boeger often tangled with school officials in Chico and later in Durham, a small town 10 miles south of Chico, where his divorced wife moved with their two children.
"Some of Fred's concerns were valid but he seemed to have a thing about authority, about bureaucracy, about anybody in charge," said Don McNelis, superintendent of schools in Durham. "He'd complain to me about something and I'd tell him I would look into it and then he'd call that same afternoon, demanding to know what had been done. He wouldn't let me do my job."
Two years ago, Boeger's attention shifted to Honig and the state Department of Education. Although he had never worked in the department, Boeger was able to develop sources who fed him memos and other material unfavorable to Honig and his top aides.
Some of this information pertained to QEP but there also were allegations of wrongdoing in several other areas of the department, including the drug and alcohol abuse prevention program, textbook purchasing procedures and the C-Lern program for disadvantaged youngsters.
Boeger tried to interest news organizations in doing stories based on the documents and memos. He also took the material to several state and federal law enforcement agencies, hoping to persuade them to conduct investigations of Honig and the department.
However, sources close to the attorney general's investigation said most of Boeger's information was old news to prosecutors and investigators in that office, who had been working on the Honig-QEP case for some time. Nor did they appreciate Boeger's repeated accusations that they were "dragging their feet" on the investigation.
Dave Puglia, spokesman for Lungren, said, "the facts that led to this indictment were developed by this office," not by outsiders.
But Boeger claimed credit, nonetheless. After the indictment was handed down, in what he later described as an "over-enthusiastic moment," Boeger stopped at the superintendent's office on the fifth floor of the education department building in Sacramento and left a one-word message with his secretary: "Gotcha!"