SACRAMENTO – Last month the California Department of Education (CDE) paid out $4.6 million to settle the longstanding case of CDE employee James Lindberg. Though previously addressed in this column, the case remains rich in lessons for legislators, educators, taxpayers, and even law enforcement.
Mr. Lindberg got in trouble not for any misconduct but simply for doing his job well. During the late 1990s the CDE was giving millions in funds for English instruction to politically connected groups not entitled to receive it. Mr. Lindberg brought this massive fraud to the attention of CDE boss Delaine Eastin. Here was an opportunity for the state superintendent to show responsible leadership and quash the corruption right there. Instead Eastin retaliated against Mr. Lindberg and kept the money flowing. The same thing happened to CDE whistleblower Robert Cervantes, who received threats from left-wing militant Bert Corona of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, the group that got most of the money.
A state auditor’s report backed up the whistleblowers and the CDE repaid the federal government more than $3 million, an acknowledgement that the department improperly disbursed funds. In 2002, a jury awarded Mr. Lindberg $4.5 million and held Delaine Eastin personally liable for nearly $1.4 million in non-economic damages and $150,000 in punitive damages because she had “acted with malice” toward him. The award was reduced to $4 million and Eastin’s punitive damages dropped. The CDE, now under current superintendent Jack O’Connell, could have ended it there but chose to appeal. That was a decision the department would come to regret.
A Sacramento jury not only agreed with Mr. Lindberg but boosted his award to $7.6 million, an increase of more than $3 million. Eastin told reporters that Lindberg no more deserved this award than “the man in the moon.” The courts thought otherwise and the CDE appealed yet again, spending $1.2 million in legal fees to defend the department and Eastin, who no longer works there.
While the case played out, the Associated Press discovered that the CDE had set aside some $3.7 million to defend itself. The department had also transferred more than $750,000 from adult education and special education programs for deaf and blind children to cover their legal costs. A CDE mouthpiece blamed this on a “clerical error.”
The recent CDE payout of $4.5 million admits no liability. To all but the willfully blind, however, the CDE has been wasteful, irresponsible, and evasive, to say the least. Mr. Lindberg may at last have his settlement but questions linger. Does the kind of misconduct he exposed continue? According to some who work in the system, it does, but they are afraid to press the issue, lest they suffer an ordeal like that of James Lindberg and Robert Cervantes.
How many people, if any, were disciplined or dismissed for taking hostile action against CDE employees for the faithful performance of their duties in exposing fraud and corruption? What happened to the money, more than $20 million in all?
Federal authorities may want to look into that matter again, on both ends, since federal funds were involved. Legislators had their chance to investigate but dropped the ball. They can make up for that lapse by empowering parents and children to escape a K-12 government education monopoly that is a corrupt failure.