Today, people who describe themselves as friends of MiraCosta wonder if the board of trustees knew enough of Richart's philosophy of education when they made her the unanimous choice for the presidency. She had been the subject of an item in the February 2006 issue of the academic journal Leadership Abstract titled "Victoria Muñoz Richart and Embracing Chaos." In it, Richart said that teachers must "relish chaos as a creative force" and "trust, as the new sciences prove, that order will emerge from the chaos...."
She defined a leader as one who ensures that all team members are "well informed and possess the necessary skills for meaningful participation." She believed that "the power of multiple minds" of diverse and "cross-functional" backgrounds working together promotes "learning and collaboration," as opposed to "protect and attack."
But some would wonder if President Richart had not adopted the attack mode herself.
Aside from Kraskouskas, the fallout from the Palm Scheme also snared a popular vice president for instructional services, Julie Hatoff. Hatoff was placed on administrative leave in August. She had been at MiraCosta 23 years at the time and was earning nearly $201,000 a year. She sent a memo about it to the faculty governing body, the Academic Senate, saying she'd been given a week, until September 1, to decide whether to take a financial settlement from the college. Hatoff hired the San Diego law firm Seltzer, Caplan, McMahon and Vitek to represent her. In the third week of September, one of her attorneys met with Academic Senate members and reported that, as recently as September 6, the district attorney's office had told him that Hatoff was not the target of an investigation.
By then, in response to a Public Records Act request from the North County Times, attorneys for the college had provided the name of the businessman involved in the Palm Scheme, Jack Wackerman, a former fertilizer company official. Horticultural faculty member Alleen Texeira was on paid leave. And in December a gender-discrimination lawsuit would name another horticultural employee, Terry Riggs, as the person who had blown the whistle on the Palm Scheme to administrators.
Meanwhile, longtime MiraCosta supporters were beginning to speak out. Among the most vocal was Jean Moreno, an alumna who had retired from the board in 2003 after 27 years. Her viewpoint was that the Palm Scheme was largely a concocted mini-scandal that Richart was using to dispatch people she no longer wanted around.
On October 3, the board of trustees passed a resolution of support for President Richart.
But faculty leaders called for a vote of no confidence in the president. And with the election coming up, they also sought to replace an incumbent, Henry Holloway, whom they viewed as an apologist for Richart. He'd been on the board 30 years. Judy Strattan, who spent 9 years at MiraCosta as dean of students and left in 1987 to go on to two community college presidencies, the last in Barstow, decided to challenge Holloway. The biggest fund-raiser in the campaign, she became known as the faculty candidate. She won by a 60-40 margin.
As the momentum for a no-confidence vote built, Richart responded with a November 28 two-and-a-half-page letter to "concerned full-time faculty." She said that allegations being circulated about her stemmed from a "distortion of actual events" and were based on "hearsay, rumor and misinterpretation of the facts," rendering them "untrue, and/or exaggerated to contribute to unrest."
The president said she was unable to refute many of the falsehoods because it would compromise the privacy rights of college employees. "Furthermore," she added, "the district attorney's office is now conducting the investigation of these matters and we cannot disclose any information that may affect the criminal investigation."
Two days later, the faculty revealed the results of balloting on a no-confidence resolution. Seventy-eight percent of the eligible voters had turned out. The vote was 106 to 8 for a declaration of no confidence.
Then, on January 16, 2007, at a meeting of the board of trustees, the board acknowledged that the college district had owned the palm trees all along. Item 1.3 in the board's agenda packet described the source of the trees. In 1997, a legal dispute had arisen between an Oceanside property owner and a tenant that involved, the agenda item said, quoting court documents, " 'over 700 large Palm Trees, worth in excess of one million dollars' and approximately '2,400 containerized plants.' " The agenda item continued, "During the course of this litigation...an oral agreement was made in February 1998 with the Horticulture Department at MiraCosta College to 'clean up the property and remove the trees and other debris.' "
The board's resolution said that a "search of the agendas and minutes" from years past had revealed that trustees had never been asked to accept the donation of any trees. The recommendation was that the board do so now. It was also noted that the college had inventoried the trees in March 2006; MiraCosta had 2328 palms.
The agenda item did not address the "fraudulent payments" to the private businessman or whether any palm trees had ever been sold.
"If they didn't know how many they had," asks Jean Moreno, the former longtime boardmember, "how did they know how many were sold?"
Paul Levikow, the communications director in the district attorney's office, said he could not confirm whether any individuals are the subject of an investigation in the Palm Scheme. "I can tell you the case has not been rejected, if I was able to acknowledge the existence of such an investigation," he said.
In other developments in the Horticulture Department, two employees, both female, have filed separate lawsuits alleging that their supervisor practiced gender discrimination in making their work assignments. One, Emma Almendarez, named the college and several John Does as defendants in an action she filed October 6 in U.S. District Court in San Diego. She complained that her work assignments differed from those of the men and that when she pointed this out, she was retaliated against.
The second employee, Karen Austin, who filed suit in superior court in Vista three days after Christmas, said campus officials ignored her complaints. She charged that officials wanted to protect her boss, Terry Riggs, because he blew the whistle on the Palm Scheme.