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Honig Goes on Trial in Calif. In Conflict-of-Interest Case

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Jury selection began last week in the conflict-of-interest trial of Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig of California, as participants said they expected the proceedings to last into next month.

Mr. Honig faces four felony counts of violating the state's conflict-of-interest laws over $337,000 of federal and state funds that were used to pay a parental-involvement program led by his wife.

If convicted in Sacramento Superior Court on all four counts, Mr. Honig--who is also president of the Council of Chief State School Officers--could be barred from holding public office and sentenced to up to 12 years in prison.

The lengthy trial, in which more than 40 witnesses may be called, culminates a year of intense focus on the finances of Mr. Honig and his wife, Nancy.

The state attorney general's office is expected to argue that the Honigs profited from the state contracts, emphasizing Ms. Honig's $108,000 salary in 1990 and $30,000 in rent paid by her Quality Education Project for use of rooms in the Honigs' house.

The defense is expected to counter that Ms. Honig worked for more than three years without pay and that the salary in question came from private funds. The rent money, the couple contends, was used to modify rooms in the house for the business.

In a related development, the U.S. Education Department charged last month that the Q.E.P. program used several forged letters, written on official stationery with Mr. Honig's signature, that praised the project and were used in several federal grant proposals.

The report by the department's inspector general's office urged cancellation of all of Q.E.P.'s present grants and reimbursement of all federal funds awarded to proposals that contained the forged letters. The department has decided not to request repayment, however, of the $1.9 million in grants that were used for several parental-involvement programs.

Ms. Honig, who has resigned as president of the program, has said she dictated the letters to a Q.E.P. employee, who typed them on Mr. Honig's stationery and signed his name.

Educators Voice Support

As the court case began last week, California education officials said they were watching closely to see how the proceedings would affect Mr. Honig's role as the chief spokesman for nation's largest state school system.

Officials in the state education department said that Mr. Honig was in the office every day last week, and that department officials expected to ferry material to and from Mr. Honig as the case proceeds. Mr. Honig's lawyers were able to schedule the trial for Monday through Thursday, which officials said will allow the superintendent to focus on official business at least one full day each week.

As the trial began, leaders of the state's top education organizations continued to stand firmly behind the 10-year state chief.

One major concern--the need to fight against state budget cuts--appeared to be eased last week as education lobbyists received word that Gov. Pete Wilson's fiscal 1994 budget request, scheduled for release on Jan. 8, would be about what they had hoped.

"In a weird way it is kind of convenient the way it worked out,'' said Kevin Gordon, the director of governmental relations for the California School Boards Association. "It would not have looked good for our chief spokesman to be making his criticism of the Governor's budget from the courtroom doors.''

"We're watching this very closely,'' added Charles D. Binderup, the superintendent of the Tulelake Unified School District and past president of the Association of California School Administrators. "In the meantime, the bulk of school administrators have a tremendous job to do in continuing the things that Superintendent Honig has begun.''

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