(Originally published January 29, 2007.)


Having received what they felt was bad legal advice in the past, the Hesperia school board voted last Monday to terminate their contract with a San Diego law firm and enter into a contract with a firm that represents an arm of the now-defunct California Charter Academy.


At last week's school board meeting, the board terminated the district's contract with San Diego-based Miller Brown Dannis. In part, the move follows board dissatisfaction with the advice given by the firm concerning W.D. Gott Construction winning contracts from the district. Diana Gott, the Hesperia Unified School District's director of facilities two years ago married the vice-president of Gott Construction, which has built a number of schools for the Hesperia Unified School District over the last decade. Miller Brown Dannis initially said Gott could be insulated from working on Gott Construction projects and avoid any conflicts of interest. The board sought a second opinion, which disagreed with the opinion offered by Miller Brown Dannis. The Gott bid for Mission Crest Elementary School was thrown out and, a month later, so were Miller Brown Dannis.


The firm also has another prominent High Desert client: the Educational Administrative Services Corporation, the for-profit "liaison" between the California Charter Academy and governments. California Charter Academy, the largest charter school in the state, closed its doors in August 2004. An audit commissioned by the California Department of Education released in April 2005 alleged that CCA and EASC misused $23 million in taxpayer funds. Although no charges have been filed, investigations by San Bernardino County and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are continuing.


If charges are eventually filed against EASC and CCA CEO C. Steven Cox, Wagner & Pelayes may end up in the position of cross-examining prosecution witnesses that include HUSD employees and current and former school board members.


"You know, I have no idea what would happen in a case like that," Wagner said Wednesday. "Typically we don't do criminal law here. We primarily do civil litigation."


Board president Bruce Minton, a Victorville-based civil attorney, was the only board member to abstain from the vote to hire Wagner & Pelayes.


"There is a potential for a conflict, in my opinion," Minton said. "Who knows, and what if, but I guess one of the concerns that we as a board have had is to avoid even the appearance of any conflict. So we're going to have to walk a very careful path maybe. I have some concerns about it."


"I would imagine, and I can't speak for the rest of the board on this, that they would no longer would be working for the board at that point," board member Lee Rogers said Wednesday.


In the absence of charges being filed against Cox, school board member Robert Kirk stuck by the decision.


"They haven't filed charges against him yet," Kirk said Friday. "It hasn't happened."


Wagner & Pelayes is one of seven firms currently contracted to work with the HUSD.


Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.