Knight: saint or sinner?

Publication Date: Wednesday Jul 5, 2000

EDUCATION: Knight: saint or sinner?

Supporters describe Knight as saint while grand jury report details financial misdeeds

Jennifer Kavanaugh

A staunch group of supporters continue to defend Ravenswood City School District Superintendent Charlie Mae Knight, as the embattled school official fights charges that she allowed district money to become entangled with her own financial dealings.

Clutching signed petitions, dozens of Knight's supporters escorted her into court for a pretrial hearing last Friday. Supporters say prosecutors are out to get Knight, who is charged with violating conflict-of-interest laws, because of her generosity. Over the years, Knight has rented houses she owns in East Palo Alto and loaned money to employees who have also borrowed money from a special district fund.

"They know an injustice has been done," Knight said as her supporters gathered around her in the court lobby. Some of them travelled from other school districts where she used to work.

Knight's attorney, William Osterhoudt, said the county is trying to prosecute his client on a legal technicality. "This is politically motivated," he said. "She has been generous with her time and her efforts. I don't know why they're doing this."

Last month, a grand jury indicted Knight on 19 felony counts of breaking state conflict-of-interest laws. Prosecutors accuse Knight of helping loan school district money to employees who already rented property from her or owed her money. The school loans came from an emergency fund, established in the early 1990s, to help needy employees pay the rent or bills.

The charges suggest Knight could have received some of that money back in rent or loans the employees owed her, creating the conflict. Knight says she didn't profit from the fund and that she only signed the checks, never influencing the loan committee.

San Mateo County prosecutors say they don't have to prove that Knight profited, only that that possibility existed. And even if Knight only signed the checks, prosecutors said, that makes her involved.

"She knew that money was going to her tenants or people who owed her money, because each of these checks says who it's going to," Deputy District Attorney Peter Lynch told the grand jury last month.

At the court hearing last Friday, Knight's attorney asked for a delay until later this month. He is planning to challenge the district attorney's case, saying that four-year statute of limitations has run out on most of the charges, which allegedly occurred between 1992 and 1997. The district attorney's office said that statute of limitations began running when the alleged misdeeds were discovered, not when they occurred.

In East Palo Alto, Knight has been elevated to an almost saint-like status by some supporters, for her attempts to help people in the district. The transcript of the grand jury testimony, released earlier this week, reveals that many of Knight's colleagues seem eager to defend her.

Dinice Maiden, the fund's administrator for years, testified that Knight didn't deal with the emergency loans. But Lynch presented statements Maiden earlier made to investigators, indicating that Knight had been far more involved in the loan fund that she has ever said.

Lynch also presented evidence that one employee, Marilyn Gurley, received a $1,000 loan to help pay her daughter's college education. But internal documents stated that the money went to pay rent, prosecutors said. Gurley was Knight's tenant at the time.

In another instance, a married couple in the district owed money to Knight, who had $27,000 invested in their home. At one point, Dario and Delfina Flores borrowed more than $12,000 from the district fund to prevent foreclosure on their home. Lynch argued that Knight could have lost that money in a foreclosure.

The Grand Jury testimony also reveals how quickly the emergency loan fund-- established with $15,000 from philanthropist Bill Somerville of Oakland--became a lifeline to school district employees struggling to make it in Silicon Valley. According to the testimony, the fund has made about 300 loans totalling $220,000. The loan fund grew through its own popularity, since borrowers had to also pay back a 12 percent loan fee.

Walter Gardner, a fourth-grade teacher for the district, said Knight saved him when he was broke. A relative of Knight's by marriage, Gardner said she took him in when he was studying to get his degree.

"If it wasn't for her, I'd still be in school or I probably would have dropped out," Gardner said.

Gardner, who received loans from the fund, had to testify before the grand jury. He said that while he stands behind Knight, others are jealous because of her success. Others suggested that the Knight case is actually an attack against the city, because it is poor and many of its residents are people of color.

Assistant District Attorney Martin Murray said his office isn't out to hurt the city.

"That's absurd," Murray said. "I don't know what politically motivated means. They're saying that because they're from East Palo Alto they don't have to obey the law? There's a conflict-of-interest law, and we're duty-bound to honor it." 

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