Nestled in the hills of Linda Vista, inside a spacious building overlooking San Diego Bay and the downtown skyline, is the headquarters to the San Diego County Office of Education. The government agency is responsible for financial and curriculum oversight for 42 school districts and five community-college districts throughout San Diego County — the county’s largest district, San Diego Unified School District, is not a member.
Over the years, the agency has spent millions of dollars in public-education funds on legal fees to defend controversial, some say ill-advised, lawsuits. Currently, the Office of Education is pumping out tens of thousands of dollars to defend a former San Ysidro superintendent accused of accepting bribes. Then there’s the defense of employee Dan Puplava and his management of a nearly $300 million investment fund for teachers while retaining his job at brokerage firms.
And most indicative of what many are calling the Office of Education’s misuse of taxpayer money is the case of Rodger Hartnett. A former insurance-claims coordinator, Hartnett was fired in 2007 after blowing the whistle on high-level management for allegedly handing out lucrative legal contracts to former employers and law firms otherwise connected to Office of Education employees.
Hartnett eventually filed suit against his former employer. Now going on its sixth year of litigation, the County Office of Education, under the orders of superintendent of schools Randolph Ward, shows no sign of relenting and continues to write checks to the five law firms hired to represent those involved.
To date, Ward and the public agency have spent upwards of $500,000 on the case. This is despite superior-court judge Steven Denton’s 2011 decision ordering the Office of Education to pay Hartnett $237,000 in back-pay, and despite an October 2013 refusal by an appeals court to reconsider Denton’s writ of mandate. The money was never paid to Hartnett, and the case is now back in Superior Court.
Nearly three years after the ruling, the $237,000 is only a fraction of what the County Office of Education could end up owing. Hartnett, now 66, believes the agency should pay him until age 70 because he was never provided a chance to fight for his job before the Office of Education’s personnel commission, and because the wrongful firing came at a time in his life and in an economy in which it was nearly impossible for him to find work. Should Hartnett prevail on this point, the Office may be on the hook for over one million dollars in salary plus attorneys’ fees and Hartnett’s retirement funds.
The potential payout, however, has not caused Ward to waver. According to Hartnett, the County Office of Education has yet to approach him to discuss a settlement.
Problems at work began for Hartnett in 2006 when his boss, Dianne Crosier, asked him to find savings in legal bills the agency pays. He suggested rotating law firms as a way to drive down the cost. The $2.9 million in legal fees spent during 2006 was divided up between three law firms. One of which — Stutz Artiano Shinoff and Holtz — was Crosier’s former employer. Another favorite firm was Best Best & Krieger, where the Office of Education’s director of human resources Michelle Fort-Merrill’s husband William “Woody” Merrill was a partner. Merrill also served as the Office of Education’s general counsel.
Shortly after making and reporting his discovery, Hartnett received his walking papers. The ensuing court battle has been fought at the expense of taxpayers and, of course, Hartnett.
Hartnett has not held down a steady job since his 2007 firing. He has spent countless hours on the case and says he will continue to do so.
“This is not Randy Ward’s Office of Education; it’s the San Diego County Office of Education,” says Hartnett. “This is public money that should go to education, not to be spent on some lawsuit based on retribution for bringing these conflict-of-interest issues to light.”
Hartnett believes that the decision to pursue the case, despite the previous ruling, comes from the top.
“Ward has the authority to settle this case or any case that comes before the Office of Education, pursuant to the State Education Code. They’ve got insurance to pay me. They already spent $500k.... Just pay me and get on with it. Pay me my money like you agreed to and the judge ordered them to.”
The County Office of Education has a different take on the matter.
Spokesperson for the administration, Music Watson, says the agency has a responsibility to fight the accusations and she dismisses Hartnett’s claim that the public organization is out for revenge.
“The court has yet to issue a final judgment in the case, and payment obligations are often delayed until after an appeal on the merits is decided upon by the Court of Appeal.”
“The San Diego County Office of Education would not be pursuing our defense if we didn’t think it was in the best interest of our agency and the districts we serve,” writes Watson in a January 21 email.
“[San Diego County Office of Education] is the defendant in this case, which unfortunately has stretched on due to impacted courts and judicial personnel changes. We remain resolute in defending the agency against allegations that have not been proven true under the law.”
As for Hartnett, “This case consumed me,” he says. “I let it do that for years. It was only after some time and some counseling that I was finally able to say, ‘The hell with them. I’m going to survive no matter what.’ Not that I am any less frustrated, I just have to go along with my life.”