|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Monday, July 19, 2004
Sacramento Bee 7-18-04
Key figure in CASA woes quits
Two separate chapters are ending in the tortured CASA pension saga, with the exit Friday of Martin Fine, general counsel for the Sacramento City Unified School District, and the Sacramento County district attorney's decision not to prosecute those who profited from the retirement scheme.
Fine was one of three top Sacramento City Unified school administrators who received lucrative benefit packages through the California Administrative Services Agency - the pension system known as CASA.
Fine, 53, was the last of the trio to remain on the district's payroll; former Superintendent Jim Sweeney and Chief Financial Officer Laura Bruno already have retired.
The general counsel, who skipped his last day at the office Friday, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment. Fine's contract paid him $132,000 a year.
"He was silent on the reasons for his resignation," said district spokeswoman Maria Lopez.
Fine's departure was negotiated quietly, and details of the deal have not been made public. Its final approval still hinges on upcoming votes by the Sacramento City school board and the directors of CASA.
CASA was born in July 2000 as an alternative to the state retirement system for about 100 employees of Sacramento City Unified and a dozen employees of the Yolo County Office of Education. (Both the school district and Yolo pulled out of CASA, effective July 1.)
Under CASA, Sweeney, Bruno and Fine each received 10 additional years of retirement credits at no cost to themselves - grants the school district now alleges are "illegal, unconstitutional and unintended gifts of public funds," according to a lawsuit it filed last month.
Those additional decades of credit would cost millions of dollars if paid out, says the district's lawsuit, which seeks to reduce the benefits for retirees Sweeney and Bruno.
School board President Jay Schenirer said Friday he could not comment on the terms of Fine's resignation until the trustees' public vote, which may be held July 29. "Right now, it's still a personnel matter," Schenirer said.
Overall, the board president said, Fine has been a good general counsel for Sacramento city schools.
"The CASA piece is an unfortunate and almost unique piece of his tenure - otherwise he had a very good record," Schenirer said. "I think he's put in a lot of tremendous work for this district - he's been a very, very good employee. He's been a big part of the accomplishments. He's a good man with a good heart."
It's still not clear how the CASA situation will play out in financial terms, either for the school district or its employees. But it now appears there will be no criminal repercussions, despite a June 30 grand jury report strongly criticizing the pension system.
The grand jury found that the Sacramento City Unified board paid little attention to oversight of CASA. It stated that the decisions to grant 10 years of service credit to Fine, Bruno and Sweeney were "excessive and unprecedented." And it said that Bruno and her outside consultants "appeared to mislead the board with incomplete information."
But the grand jury did not recommend criminal indictments, and Sacramento prosecutors have decided not to press criminal charges, said Albert Locher, assistant chief deputy district attorney.
Bottom line, according to Locher, is that the prosecutors don't think they could get a jury to convict.
"In a criminal prosecution," Locher said, "we must prove not only that a fiduciary duty was breached, we must also prove that a specific criminal statute was violated. We must prove that beyond a reasonable doubt and convince all 12 members of a jury. On these facts, we don't think that we could get there."
Maggie Carrillo Mejia, Sacramento City Unified's new superintendent, said the school district did its part in cooperating with county prosecutors. "The District Attorney's Office reached their conclusions using their expertise," she said.
Citizen watchdogs who pressed for the investigation into CASA say they are disappointed by the decision not to prosecute.
"Even so, this is not the end of this," said Ruth Holbrook, a district union leader and an officer with the Sacramento Coalition to Save Public Education, a task force of union leaders and parents that formed around the CASA issue.
"Four board members are up for re-election in November, and certainly
during the campaign these issues will be raised again."
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