Berkowitz challenges grand jury findings

July 01, 2003 12:00 am

By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

School Board President Bob Berkowitz said the grand jury's accusations against him have no merit.

This is the second challenge to the grand jury's findings by those accused in its report. Last week, officials with the Smith River Community Services District claimed the grand jury's findings were faulty and its comments slanderous.

In both instances, the grand jury foreman said he stands by the report's findings.

According to the grand jury, Berkowitz, as a member of the Del Norte County Unified School District Board, voted to supply $60,000 worth of equipment to a class he was teaching a for the College of the Redwoods. The vote posed a conflict of interest, so Berkowitz should have abstained, the jury concluded.

Berkowitz claims the grand jury's timeframe is out of whack, and the work he performed for former Superintendent Walt Hanline and former college President Sharon Dyer in 1999 was long before he ever voted on the issue.

"It wasn't my course. I had no idea I would even be teaching that course," Berkowitz said about the time he helped set up the class. He said that when he drew up the equipment list, he was not employed at the college.

"I thought I was just doing them a favor," he said.

A purchase order for the equipment was dated as Oct. 22, 1999. Berkowitz said Dyer offered him the class six to eight months after that.

Jury Foreman Gary Leal said records supplied to the grand jury indicate Berkowitz knew he would be teaching the class in the future.

"The California State Attorney General's Office concurred with our finding that there was a conflict of interest," said Leal. "Many of the things are not what he (Berkowitz) perceives them to be. Documents already showed him as the instructor-to-be."

On June 28, 2001, the school board officially voted to verify verbal agreements with the college — including the past purchase of the equipment. This is when the conflict arose, according to the grand jury.

Ryan Bouchard filed a complaint on the matter with last year's grand jury, which conducted an investigation, then passed information on to the current grand jury.

Bouchard said he didn't believe Berkowitz when he claimed he was unaware the job would eventually be offered to him.

"I have a hard time believing that," said Bouchard. "Mr. Hanline and Mr. Berkowitz were looking at the high school for a place to set it (the class) up there before it ended up over at the college."

Berkowitz said Bouchard's initial complaint was politically motivated because of long-standing philosophical differences. He also claims the grand jury should have conducted thorough interviews before coming to its conclusion.

"This has to do with the grand jury doing its own investigation and not relying on information from the past grand jury," said Berkowitz. "They didn't interview me. They didn't interview the other board members, to my knowledge, or Dr. Hanline or Dr. Dyer."

Leal acknowledged that most of the grand jury's interviews and documents were derived from the 2001-2002 grand jury investigation.

"The grand jury will speak to whomever they feel they need to talk to for their investigation," said Leal. "In this case, it was mainly a carryover from the prior year's investigation. There was documentation for us to look at."

Berkowitz and Superintendent Frank Lynch said that at the time of the vote, the school district's attorney said there was no conflict of interest.

Leal said the grand jury considered Berkowitz' vote as a violation, but it decided the incident was not one that could be prosecuted.

"Clearly, the attorney general said if we wanted to pursue it, we could. But who would benefit?" said Leal. "The equipment for the class may have come into jeopardy.

"We felt this was best. It's good for people in the community to know what happened," he said. "Not that he was not guilty – the concurrence from the attorney general's office was all we needed."