Editorial: Disquieting issues in Knight prosecution

Publication Date: Wednesday Jun 14, 2000

Editorial: Disquieting issues in Knight prosecution

Charges against Ravenswood superintendent raise delicate questions about both Knight's actions and the DA's decision to prosecute

The case that appears to be emerging from a San Mateo County grand jury against Ravenswood City School District Superintendent Charlie Mae Knight has all the appearances of one destined to be controversial and divisive of the East Palo Alto community.

While newspaper headlines and television news reports paint a picture of a school administrator engaged in financial dealings with district employees that constitute an allegedly illegal conflict of interest, the details are far from clear and the case is extremely complex and technical.

Important to the fair public treatment of Dr. Knight is the fact that the law all but ignores intent when it comes to financial conflicts of public employees. Conflict of interest law in California doesn't even require proof that financial enrichment took place, only that the employee wasn't operating at arm's length from a transaction in which he or she had a potential economic interest.

What will make the case against Charlie Mae Knight so controversial is that the apparent motivation of all her actions was compelling, if not inspiring: She tried to help underpaid school district employees with their housing and other needs through a loan program using private funds.

Barring some new revelations from the district attorney, here's the essence of what happened:

In 1993, struggling with the many challenges of running the Ravenswood school district, not the least of which was recruiting and retaining teachers and other employees, Knight decided to see if she could raise funds to help employees with rental housing deposits and other financial emergencies.

She turned to Bill Somerville, the well-respected former president of the Peninsula Community Foundation who runs a smaller foundation with a strong interest in education and in East Palo Alto and other minority communities.

Somerville, known for his disdain of the paperwork and administrative burdens found at many foundations, agreed to fund a program in which a small committee would decide on loans to district employees to help them through tough times.

Meanwhile, Knight became a landlord to several district staff, renting them one of the six houses or condominiums she owned in East Palo Alto apparently at or below market rates. Some of the loans made over the last seven years went to some of the district employees renting from Knight.

Charlie Mae Knight has always been a controversial figure in East Palo Alto, and opinions vary widely on her effectiveness as a school superintendent. She has no lack of political opponents, and undoubtedly it was some of her opponents who brought the conflict of interest issue to the District Attorney back in 1997.

Now, after three years, the District Attorney's office used the powers of the grand jury to pull together a legal case against Knight.

There may indeed be evidence of wrongdoing on Knight's part that extends beyond what has been stated publicly thus far. If the case proceeds, a jury will have the final word.

Like any legal matter, the community at large is not in a good position to evaluate the technical aspects of the law and how they apply to a given defendant's actions.

But the District Attorney's office seems on shaky ground to us--if not on the law's technicalities then in the court of public opinion. If what Knight is guilty of is raising private funds and then not adequately removing herself from the process of those funds getting loaned to her employees, then one must question the district attorney's decision to bring felony charges against her. If the allegations go beyond that, then the DA better tread carefully to avoid the appearance of a politically influenced prosecution.

In the meantime, let's remember that Knight is innocent of the charges until they are proven in court.

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