Political Maneuvering Begins in California After Honig is Convicted

By Lonnie Harp — February 10, 1993 6 min read
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Stunned by the swift conviction of Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig on four felony conflict-of-interest charges, California educators last week were pausing to consider the end of an era while politicians began maneuvering to lay claim to the vacant post.

After a trial that lasted the entire month of January, a Sacramento Superior Court jury deliberated for just three hours before returning guilty verdicts on all four counts. Mr. Honig was found guilty of criminal conflict of interest in approving four state contracts worth $337,000 for work through his wife’s nonprofit parental-involvement program. He intends to appeal the verdict.

Many school officials said last week that, despite the lengthy legal dispute over the program and daily news from Mr. Honig’s trial, they found it difficult to realize that the energetic and outspoken spokesman for school reforms and higher funding had been banished from the job he commanded over the past decade.

With the conviction, Mr. Honig was suspended without pay from his job and, barring intervention from a higher court, will be removed when he is sentenced Feb. 26. He could face up to five years in prison.

Mr. Honig visited the state education department offices last week to answer questions and brief administrators on the status of projects.

“Reluctantly, I now pass the torch,’' he said in a letter to employees.

California politicians quickly turned their attention to the opening created by Mr. Honig’s conviction.

Under state law, William D. Dawson, a veteran state administrator and Mr. Honig’s executive deputy superintendent for most of his tenure, became the acting superintendent.

Mr. Dawson last week took over day-to-day management of the department. He will remain in the post until Gov. Pete Wilson appoints a successor to complete a term that expires in 1994.

The Governor’s appointment must win majority approval from both the Senate and Assembly.

Several potential nominees were mentioned last week, but aides to the Governor remained quiet about the process, and some observers said Mr. Wilson was taking some time to size up the fight that may lie ahead.

Speaker of the House Willie Lewis Brown Jr. offered indications of a major battle in the Assembly when he called last week on the Republican Governor to appoint a Democrat to the post. Although he was elected three times to his post on a nonpartisan basis, Mr. Honig was a prominent Democrat who had been viewed as a possible gubernatorial candidate for his party.

Analysts read Mr. Brown’s remarks as a warning to the Governor that Democrats will fight a Republican appointee unless Mr. Wilson chooses a “caretaker’’ who will not run as an incumbent in 1994.

Among those mentioned as possible appointees are Maureen DiMarco, the Governor’s secretary of child development and education, and two Republican senators: Marian Bergeson and Rebecca Q. Morgan.

“It will be a very hot, spirited debate,’' predicted Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University.

Mr. Honig had previously announced his intention not to seek re-election next year, and a number of powerful politicians, notably Sen. Gary Hart, the chairman of the Senate education committee, and Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin, the chairman of the Assembly education panel, both Democrats, had already been seen as laying the groundwork for their candidacies.

Beyond the political grappling, though, school officials said they expected that whomever Mr. Wilson selects will continue with many of Mr. Honig’s programs and priorities.

“Any of the people who have been mentioned would want to build on the reforms Honig backed, like stronger standards and a longer school year or any of a number of things he’s been on the leading edge of,’' said Kevin Gordon, the director of governmental relations for the California School Boards Association.

Leaving a Void

As the jockeying began for Mr. Honig’s replacement, many educators said they were still in disbelief over his removal.

“No one really believed it would happen,’' said Susie Lange, a spokeswoman for the department. “It was so obvious that he never intended to do anything at all that was damaging.’'

“It leaves a big void,’' she added.

Local educators expressed similar concerns, noting that Mr. Honig had remained in close contact with the everyday circumstances of school districts and at the same time had been a very effective spokesman at the state level. Observers also noted the scope of his reform interests, which ranged from curriculum and textbook reform to business partnerships and funding.

Although Mr. Honig made many enemies in California with his outspoken advocacy, even his sharpest critics were restrained in their remarks after the conviction.

Some observers lashed out at Mr. Honig’s prosecutors for pushing their case too far.

“In a town hip-deep in sleazy politicians; in a state where children are randomly murdered on the streets, and sometimes in their homes; where many people are afraid to walk at night ... the attorney general, after a two-year investigation, has managed to convict state school superintendent Bill Honig, the state’s most dedicated public official, of a felony,’' The Sacramento Bee wrote in an editorial last week.

Press reaction was not uniformly supportive of Mr. Honig, however. In a column in The Los Angeles Times, Joseph Farah, a former editor of the Sacramento Union, labeled the superintendent “a die-hard liberal true believer’’ who was brought down by “his near certainty that as an established do-gooder he was invulnerable to criticism.’'

The Union under Mr. Farah had vigorously pushed for an investigation into Mr. Honig’s activities, raising questions about his ethical practices well before the case was taken up by state law-enforcement officials.

In closing arguments, prosecutors called Mr. Honig a tragic figure who must unfortunately live with the consequences of his actions. They described him as a man whose judgment was clouded by his obsession to see his wife’s business flourish.

‘Without Motive for Money’

“No doubt you feel sorry for him,’' said George Williamson, the chief assistant attorney general. “Heck, I feel sorry for Mr. Honig. That’s the tragedy of this case. It’s sad. But even if you feel sorry for him, you’re going to have to find him guilty.’'

Mr. Honig’s lawyer contended, however, that his client, the scion of a wealthy family, had never benefited financially from the contracts.

“This is a man without motive for money,’' Patrick Hallinan told the jury. “There is no more ethical man in government today than Bill Honig.’'

Mr. Hallinan said after the case that his defense had been severely limited early in the case by Judge James L. Long, who would not allow discussions of Nancy Honig’s Quality Education Project beyond the four contracts in dispute.

The judge also offered a broad interpretation of the conflict-of-interest statute in his instructions to the jury, noting that, even if Mr. Honig did not benefit from the contracts, he should be found guilty if he had the potential to benefit.

Observers said the jury’s decision will be remembered as a landmark for the state superintendency not only because of Mr. Honig’s personal stamp on his position, but also because of its changing nature.

“He may be the last educator to hold the office, rather than somebody who has spent a lifetime in politics,’' Mr. Kirst said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 1993 edition of Education Week as Political Maneuvering Begins in California After Honig is Convicted

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