Probes of Textbook Publishers Sought In California Following Ethics Charges

By Robert Rothman — May 24, 1989 5 min read

California’s attorney general is looking into allegations that textbook publishers violated conflict-of-interest laws by providing members of local adoption committees with meals, entertainment, and luxury-hotel rooms.

The allegations, which were reported in the April 28 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, also charge that publishers illegally offered price discounts to particular school districts.

Bill Honig, California’s superintendent of public instruction, wrote to Attorney General John Van de Kamp this month asking him to investigate the allegations. Mr. Honig said that the charges, if confirmed, warrant “appropriate criminal prosecution.”

“If a number of the statements in the articles are correct,” Mr. Honig wrote, “then there have been serious violations of state conflict-of-interest laws which should be prosecuted as crimes.”

A spokesman for Mr. Van de Kamp said last week that Mr. Honig’s letter had been referred to Richard Iglehart, head of the criminal division, and that the attorney general had conferred with Arlo Smith, San Francisco’s district attorney, to determine if further investigation was warranted.

Senator Larry Stirling, a member of the Senate education committee, and Assemblyman Elihu Harris, chairman of the joint legislative audit committee, have also asked the state auditor general to investigate the charges.

Senator Stirling, who said the charges suggest the current textbook-adoption system should be scrapped, has also requested separate inquiries by the attorney general, the Senate education committee, and the Little Hoover Commission, a state investigatory agency.

Donald A. Eklund, vice president of the school division of the Association of American Publishers, responded to the charges by noting that some district officials have “sought special treatment.”

Mr. Eklund added that his association had warned Mr. Honig in 1986 that some local officials were making demands on publishers, and suggested that the superintendent notify districts and publishers of the “range of applicability” of state laws in order to ensure that materials are selected based on “appropriateness for the districts’ educational programs.”

Dan Chernow, chairman of the state board of education’s curriculum commission, said last week that the panel was considering extending to local officials its nonbinding ethics guidelines, which urge state officials not to accept anything of value from publishers.

“Appearance [of a conflict of interest] is just as important as reality,” he said. “The appearance becomes reality. You’re better off keeping clean and distant.”

California’s textbook-adoption system, which has led to widely publicized confrontations between Mr. Honig and publishers, has recently come under increased scrutiny.

This month, two committees in the legislature approved measures to revamp the process by creating a “rolling adoption” system under which the state would review textbooks for any subject annually, rather than review materials for a different subject every two years.

The bills were aimed, sponsors said, at “opening up” a system that had created high-stakes competition among firms for a share of the state’s $150-million textbook market. (See Education Week, May 17, 1989.)

Such competition, according to Mr. Chernow, has led at times to some questionable business practices by both sellers and buyers.

“I don’t want to paint with a broad brush every district and publisher,” said Mr. Chernow, “but some publishers go beyond what is ethical and legal to sell here, and some districts go beyond what is ethical and legal to get the best deal.”

According to the Chronicle article, which was based on interviews with some 70 education and publishing officials who demanded anonymity, the Open Court Publishing Company spent $50,000 to invite 30 educators and their spouses for a weekend at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Laguna Niguel in Orange County to discuss the company’s mathematics series.

In addition to the educational meetings, the participants also took a company-paid cruise aboard a yacht, ate dinner at a Newport Beach restaurant, and played golf and tennis at the hotel.

The article quoted one textbook salesman as saying that Open Court was at the time seeking a place on the state adoption list. “We wanted to nail down some votes,” he said.

The article also alleged that the McGraw-Hill Book Company also held a week-long meeting at an Oakland resort hotel, and that Holt, Rinehart and Winston Inc., had hosted after-hours parties for educators at Sea World in San Diego. In addition, it stated, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc. provided one school official--who served as an unpaid consultant for the company--with an expense-paid trip to the firm’s Orlando, Fla., headquarters.

Elizabeth Russo, director of public affairs for McGraw-Hill, said last week that the firm “markets its books within the guidelines set down by states and districts.”

She added that the company held a meeting at the Oakland hotel in order to provide an “uninterrupted format” to explain to teachers its complex new language-arts series.

Multiple attempts to reach officials from the other firms for com4ment were unsuccessful.

In his letter to Mr. Van de Kamp, Mr. Honig noted that, if the articles were accurate, the publishers could be liable for criminal prosecution.

The state’s education code, he pointed out, makes it a misdemeanor to “offer or give any emolument, money, or other valuable thing, or any inducement, to any school official to directly or indirectly induce, recommend, vote for, or otherwise influence the adoption or purchase of any instructional materials.”

The state’s penal code, he added, makes it a felony to bribe a public official.

In addition to the conflict-of-interest allegations, the Chronicle article also charged that Holt, Rinehart and Winston appeared to violate state law by offering some districts staff-development funds worth 5 percent of the total book order.

Under the state’s so-called “most favored nation” law, publishers are prohibited from offering discounts to some districts and not others.

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 1989 edition of Education Week as Probes of Textbook Publishers Sought In California Following Ethics Charges