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Honig Faces Trial on Criminal Charges of Conflict of Interest

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Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig of California confirmed late last week that he will face a criminal trial over felony conflict-of-interest charges following an indictment by a state grand jury.

Although state law-enforcement officials declined to comment on the case, reports of the indictment had appeared in the press earlier last week.

In a telephone interview and in a San Francisco press conference, Mr. Honig continued to vehemently deny any wrongdoing in the state education department's dealings with his wife's nonprofit education firm, which have spawned the state probe as well as federal audits and investigations.

He added, however, that his lawyer and lawyers from the state attorney general's office had agreed that he would surrender to court officials late last week or early this week and remain free on bail pending a trial.

Mr. Honig indicated that the indictment is based on a state law that prohibits state officials from having a financial stake in any contract approved by their office. The felony carries a maximum three-year sentence for each count and permanent disqualification from public office.

The law would allow a judge to reduce the offense to a misdemeanor, limiting the penalty to a fine.

Mr. Honig, a Democrat, said that while he had hoped the case would be dropped before now, he welcomes a public trial that will expose what he charges is a political campaign by State Attorney General Daniel E. Lungren and other Republican conservatives to remove him from office.

"The charges are baseless and not appropriate for a criminal court,'' said Mr. Honig, expressing confidence that he will be cleared by the court.

"This is going to go to trial, and the jury is going to hear it, and, in the meantime, I am going to keep doing my job, because that's what the right wing wants--for me to stop doing my job,'' he said.

Focus on Wife's Program

At the heart of the state's case is the Quality Education Project, a nonprofit parental-involvement program founded by Mr. Honig's wife, Nancy, who served as the organization's president and ran the company from the couple's San Francisco home.

At issue is $222,590 in federal funds awarded between 1985 and 1988 to four school-district employees who administered Q.E.P. programs in California schools.

In an investigation launched more than a year ago, the state's top prosecutor began looking into conflict-of-interest charges. Last October, state investigators raided the Honigs' home in search of financial records.

More recently, auditors from the U.S. Education Department accused Mr. Honig of conflict-of-interest violations involving the federal funds. The report said that Mr. Honig derived income from the Q.E.P. through the $119,000 annual salary of his wife and the $30,000 Q.E.P. paid over two years for office space in the couple's home. (See Education Week, Jan. 8, 1992.)

Ms. Honig resigned her post in January, and a federal investigation is continuing.

The administrator of the nation's largest state school system argued last week, however, that prosecutors are mistaken.

"The attorney general does not dispute that the money actually went to pay for these four educators; they actually did initiate successful parent-involvement programs; and, most importantly, not one dime of these funds ever went to Q.E.P., to Nancy Honig, or to me,'' he said at his press conference on Thursday.

"You've got to ask yourself, 'Where is the financial benefit?' '' Mr. Honig added in an interview.

Political Motives Seen

Mr. Honig has maintained throughout the investigation that the charges are motivated by political foes unhappy with his administration of the state's massive school sytem.

On issues ranging from teaching evolution to textbook selection, Mr. Honig has repeatedly clashed with conservatives during his 10 years in office. In recent months, he has been attacked for his opposition to a proposed ballot initiative allowing parents to send their children to private schools at state expense.

Mr. Honig has also frequently clashed with some members of the state school board, which is dominated by Republicans.

The superintendent charged that Attorney General Lungren has become the champion of outspoken Republicans who seek his ouster--a charge the prosecutor has denied.

"This really smacks of politics,'' Mr. Honig said last week. "There is a whole series of issues they've been against me on, and now they are using Q.E.P. to attack me.''

He added that one benefit of a jury trial will be that he will have an opportunity to counter the high-profile publicity of Mr. Lungren's investigation and the recent indictment.

"With a public trial, the people of California will finally have the chance to learn the facts and hear what I have done to benefit our state's students,'' he said.

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