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And just like that, Marne Foster was gone.
After months of controversy surrounding the San Diego Unified school board member, Foster resigned from her post this week and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.
Two days after the resignation, a judge released documents that had previously been kept under seal. Only then did the public know exactly what issues surrounding Foster the district attorney’s office was interested in.
The resignation itself was an anticlimactic ending to a saga that, for several months, grew more bizarre by the week.
In an effort to protect the district from a long and drawn-out trial, Foster’s defense attorney and the district attorney’s office entered into private negotiations and struck a deal – even before the public was made aware that Foster was facing formal charges.
School board members have offered up several statements typical for this kind of post-scandal autopsy: They’ll review what went wrong, and take actions to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. They are eager return to the business of educating kids.
Here are a few things the unsealed search warrant finally answered, and questions that remain.
What charges was Foster facing?
Because negotiations were conducted in private, we only know of one charge that Foster formally faced – the one she pleaded guilty to: accepting illegal gifts as a public official.
But the search warrant finally sheds light on what issues the district attorney’s office cared about. Investigators looked into the allegation that Foster was secretly behind a claim that sought $250,000 from the district as well as a fundraiser Foster held for her sons.
Those are the two issues that led the district to open an internal investigation – the results of which it never released.
Other potentially criminal acts mentioned in the search warrant include: whether Foster filed false information so that her son could qualify to receive free lunches, and whether Foster filed a false statement of economic interests.
The issue that led to the plea deal: Politicians are required to disclose gifts they receive. Jan Hunter, a philanthropist connected to the Jackie Robinson YMCA, paid for Foster’s youngest son to attend drama camp, and for airfare to and from Pace University in New York, where he attends college. The gifts totaled $3,487. Foster did not disclose those gifts until investigators asked about them, according to the docs. She filed an amended form disclosing the gifts, but by then it was too late.
Who knew Foster was behind the $250,000 claim against the district?
Everyone. Superintendent Cindy Marten knew Foster was going to submit the claim before she filed it, and informed the rest of the school board of Foster’s plans both before and after the claim was filed. Marten also told Andra Donovan, the district’s general counsel, records show.
Based on the information contained in the warrant, Marten believed Foster was going to submit the claim in her own name and found it “curious” when she read in the San Diego Union-Tribune that Foster said she had nothing to do with the claim.
When Foster hand-delivered the claim to Donavon in 2014, Donavon saw the claim was submitted in the name of John Marsh, the father of Foster’s son, and informed an insurance and risk-services manager who works with the district that Marsh was connected to Foster. The district dismissed the claim, and no money was paid out.
The records do not show whether Foster was ever called out by Donovan, board members or Marten for the apparent ruse.
Was the district attorney’s office interested in what happened at SCPA?
Not really. Indirectly, investigators dug into some dealings at the School of Creative and Performing Arts, where Foster’s sons attended school and where she sparred with school leaders, but only because that’s where many problems originated.
The question of whether Marten removed Principal Mitzi Lizarraga at Foster’s request wasn’t addressed in the documents. The DA’s office was interested in potentially criminal acts, and staffing disputes probably didn’t rise to the level.
What will the school district do to avoid a similar situation in the future?
Shortly after Foster announced her resignation, trustee John Lee Evans told the San Diego Union-Tribune the situation offers a good learning opportunity. He said he wants “to schedule a board workshop to review ethics policies for trustees to address the perception of conduct problems.”
Trustee Richard Barrera told me the same thing. Unlike politicians who hold higher office, school board members have no staff members working for them to help them keep clear of ethics violations. So trustees should be better educated on what they can and can’t do, Barrera said.
Ironically, this same recommendation was made by San Diego’s civil Grand Jury last summer – before the details of Foster’s misdeeds came to light. At the time, the district’s general counsel Andra Donovan waved away the recommendations, arguing current district policies and safeguards are “sufficiently robust.”
When I pointed this out to Barrera, he said that the district didn’t necessarily disagree with the Grand Jury’s specific recommendation to increase ethics trainings. The district disagreed more with the general thrust of the grand jury report.
“It’s one thing for the district to have policies,” Barrera said. “It’s another to be reminded of the rules on an ongoing basis.”
School board members used to have ethics training every year, he said, but haven’t had one in the past several years.
What will the ordeal cost the district?
It’s difficult right now to grasp the costs of the Foster controversy, both financial and otherwise.
In November, the school board hired investigators from DLA Piper to look into Foster’s actions. Costs were capped at $40,000.
District spokeswoman Linda Zintz said the district hasn’t yet received the bill for those services, and couldn’t say what amount will eventually be paid out.
On another front, the district will have to defend itself against a lawsuit from Kim Abagat, the counselor who wrote an unflattering college evaluation letter for Foster’s son. Abagat argues she was retaliated against for writing a truthful letter.
The district could fight the suit and take it to trial, or it could settle. Abagat’s attorney, Dan Gilleon, said it’s common for settlements in similar cases to reach into six-figures.
If school board members decide to hold a special election to fill the seat, costs will rack up.
In 2014, when a South Bay Union School District board member died, the San Diego County Registrar of Voters estimated it would cost the district anywhere from $330,000 to $380,000 to hold a special election to fill his post, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
What did the district-hired investigators find?
Zintz said the district does not plan to release information collected by the district-hired investigators. No report has been produced, she said.
The search warrant said the investigators provided a limited number of emails to the district attorney’s office. But one of those emails revealed that Foster’s son received a scholarship to a theater camp and roundtrip airfare tickets. That was provided by Hunter, who until 2013 served on the board of the Jackie Robinson YMCA.
Hunter also paid for roundtrip airfare tickets and a hotel stay in New York. Hunter told the San Diego Union-Tribune she was simply inspired to help Foster’s son after he quoted Shakespeare at an event.
What happened in the negotiations that led to Foster’s plea deal?
This is probably the most fascinating of all unanswered questions. By the time the public even found out Foster was being charged with a crime, she had already agreed to plea deal. That terms of the deal were negotiated privately.
Resignation from public office has served as a bargaining chip for local politicians before.
Arlie Ricasa, a former Sweetwater Union High School District trustee, made a similar plea deal with the district attorney. She was originally charged with 33 counts, 16 of which were felonies, for failing to report upwards of $36,000 in total gifts. After a lengthy court battle and negotiations with the district attorney, she pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count, was sentenced to probation, ordered to pay a fine and was forced to resign from the school board.
Ultimately, Foster pleaded to accepting illegal gifts as a public official, a misdemeanor that forced her resignation. She won’t see any jail time, and will serve three years’ probation.
Both her defense attorney and the prosecution acknowledged that high-profile allegations raised by media outlets, including Voice of San Diego, played an important role in her resignation and were part of negotiations that eventually led to the plea agreement.
But neither side would discuss other charges Foster potentially faced.