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Fleming’s foes are just getting warmed up

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You bet they feel vindicated. What they aren’t feeling is charitable. You could say, in fact, they’re just getting warmed up.

The foes of former Capistrano Unified School District Supt. James Fleming -- yes, the man had enemies -- had reason to celebrate Thursday, if that’s the right word. They had been loudly proclaiming in recent years that Fleming was running a corrupt administration, and now they’ve got county grand jury indictments against Fleming and his assistant superintendent to back them up.

The three-count indictment, the first ever against an Orange County school district superintendent, charges Fleming with compiling an “enemies list” of people who in 2005 wanted to recall his supporters on the Board of Trustees. The indictment also charges Assistant Supt. Susan McGill for her involvement in that and with perjuring herself before the grand jury.

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A happy day for the phalanx of people who had lined up against Fleming -- including an unprecedented array of City Hall officials from municipalities within the school district’s boundaries -- but they aren’t done yet.

“What we’re talking about here is Fleming, and that is only the tip of the iceberg,” says Tony Beall, the mayor of Rancho Santa Margarita and a recall leader. “All these issues that are now being brought to light are things we brought directly and personally to the trustees. Those trustees turned a blind eye, put their heads in the sand. And all of this happened on their watch.”

Beall, who has four children in Capo schools, says the four remaining pro-Fleming trustees should resign immediately. If not, he says, the recall forces will mass against them.

I can’t remember another instance in modern Orange County history where city officials have so vociferously dived into school district affairs. Beall is hardly alone, but he’s been among the most ardent opponents.

After district attorney’s investigators raided Fleming’s office and took computers and files last summer, Beall urged the board not to let Fleming leave with a sweet retirement package after his 15 years as superintendent. Beall asked the board to terminate Fleming and, in the short term, put him on administrative leave.

“And what did they do when I sat down?” Beall recalls. “I got called a liar 17 times by elected trustees. They stood up one by one praising him as the greatest superintendent they’d ever known. They gave him a standing ovation, and I felt like I was in ‘The Twilight Zone.’ ”

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I told Beall I’d been amazed in the last couple years at the level of vitriol directed at the Capo administration -- including that from local council members in South County cities. Beall uses “evil” to describe actions taken by Fleming’s administration. Another council member has referred to a trustee as “probably the most vicious and obstinate person I ever met in my life.”

Beall doesn’t apologize for the rhetoric and agrees it’s unusually heated by normal city hall/school district standards.

Historically, Beall says, any elected official who takes on a school district runs the risk of being labeled “against the children.” But the suspicions and complaints against Fleming’s administration kept mounting, he says, with residents saying they needed City Hall’s backing to take on the seemingly bulletproof superintendent.

For now, the anti-Fleming forces are riding high. The indictments remove any suggestion they were crackpots.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Fleming and McGill are guilty. They are free to fight the charges. Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas left open the possibility that other district-related charges -- involving open-meeting violations -- would come.

“We are not finished with our work, and we are not ready to make news on that,” Rackauckas said in a prepared statement.

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Beall isn’t finished, either. “We’ve never been more together,” he says of the core recall proponents. “We’ve never stopped working, ever.”

The group last fall endorsed three candidates who won, knocking off two incumbents. A third incumbent didn’t run. The remaining four are in the group’s cross hairs.

“It’s not that I don’t like these people,” Beall says. “They’re not worthy to serve. They have plunged this big and very sophisticated district into the abyss.”

There are issues at play here that go beyond Capo Unified. Beall ticked off several, including a tendency of school boards to rubber-stamp a superintendent and staff’s recommendations and the lack of oversight from county or state education departments.

Those are topics for another day. For today, I can only warn the four pro-Fleming holdovers on the Capo Unified board to be on the lookout. The posse is heading your way.

Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

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