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Following months of allegations, San Diego Unified School Board trustee Marne Foster resigned over something that had never surfaced publicly.
She pleaded guilty Tuesday to a misdemeanor charge of accepting illegal gifts as a public official. Her resignation from the school board, effective Feb. 7, was part of her plea agreement.
But her defense attorney and the prosecution acknowledged that high-profile allegations made against her had played an important role in her resignation.
They both said the public issues she’d faced in the media, which also led to an investigation into her conduct by the school district, were part of negotiations that eventually led to the plea agreement.
“We were looking at a lot of different charges and considering all sorts of possibilities,” said Leon Schorr, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case.
It was Foster’s failure to disclose a series of gifts from Janet Hunter, a “benefactor in the community,” Schorr said, that led to the charge, which prohibits officials from receiving gifts in excess of $460 per year from a single source.
Hunter paid for Foster’s youngest son, Malachi Foster, to attend drama camp, and airfare to and from Pace University in New York. The gifts totaled $3,487.
No other charges were formally filed against Foster, and the DA’s office agreed not to pursue charges in the future on the allegations that plagued Foster since 2014. The school district could take further action, though Foster’s defense attorney Adam Gordon said he didn’t anticipate it doing so, since she had resigned.
Also included in Foster’s plea agreement: She will serve three years’ probation, she cannot run for political office for four years and she must pay Hunter back the value of the gift.
Schorr said the DA’s office accepted the deal after considering the effect a “long, drawn-out” trial would have on the district.
Neither would discuss what other charges might have been associated with other allegations against Foster.
“This isn’t getting off easy,” Schorr said. “This is a major, major life hit for her.”
Foster failed to disclose the gifts from Hunter in an ethics filing in April 2015. Foster later amended the filing to reflect the gift after she was approached by county prosecutors.
Neither Gordon nor Schorr would immediately provide more details on Hunter or her relationship with Foster and the school district.
Gordon said it was his contention there was not a quid-pro-quo between Hunter and Foster relating to the gifts.
The search warrant executed by the DA on Dec. 10, which would indicate what other avenues the prosecutors explored, remains sealed.
Last year was a rough one for Foster.
Among the news to come out of the past several months:
• Foster pressured Superintendent Cindy Marten to remove Mitzi Lizarraga from her post as principal of the School of Creative and Performing Arts, the school her son attended. That demand was met. In 2014, that principal was forced to leave the school. Later, she left the district.
• Foster demanded district staff address the actions of Kim Abagat, an SCPA counselor who wrote a less-than-flattering college evaluation letter for Foster’s son. Abgat was suspended for nine days without pay, records show. In January, Abagat filed a lawsuit against San Diego Unified, claiming she was retaliated against. Another former staff member at the school, James Jacoby, said he was removed from SCPA for suspending one of Foster’s sons.
• Foster demanded that a new college evaluation letter replace the less-than-flattering letter. That letter, which contained false information, was submitted.
• A legal claim was filed against the district by the father of Foster’s son, John Marsh, argued the unflattering evaluation letter kept Foster’s son out of his schools of choice, and sought $250,000 in compensation. Initially, Foster told San Diego Union-Tribune she had nothing to do with the claim. Marsh later told VOSD this was a lie: Foster wrote the complaint, and told him to sign it and submit it in his name, he said.
• Foster held a private fundraiser to benefit her sons, spreading word of the event through her professional connections. District employees as well as vendors who had business before the school board attended the fundraising event. Foster later apologized for the fundraiser, calling it a “mistake of the heart.”
Andrew Keatts and Ry Rivard contributed to this story.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed a quote. Leon Schorr, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case, said, “This isn’t getting off easy. This is a major, major life hit for her.”