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DA seizes school district computer

The District Attorney's offices searched CUSD's administration building in San Juan Capistrano Monday, taking a computer and documents.
/ Source: The Orange County Register

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO - Investigators for the Office of the District Attorney on Monday seized the computer of Capistrano Unified School District Superintendent James Fleming's assistant, district officials said. The investigators arrived at the district's office at about 9 a.m. Monday, district spokeswoman Beverly de Nicola said. They served a warrant to search the superintendent's wing and took the computer and documents, she said.

"We welcome any investigation because we're confident any investigation will show the district did nothing wrong," she said.

The search continues an investigation into the 50,000-student district that has been going on since at least February.

Deputy District Attorney Susan Schroeder wouldn't confirm the search or comment on the investigation.

Schroeder confirmed in February that the district attorney's office had assigned investigators to complaints against the district. She would not say what the complaints were.

As part of the investigation, members of two groups critical of the district say they were asked about topics including a district database of political opponents, trustees' closed-session meetings and possible conflicts of interest.

The district attorney's investigators have also interviewed current and former employees, including former spokesman David Smollar.

About 10 district critics arrived early Monday morning to watch the raid, tipped off to the district attorney's plans.

They said about 10 investigators entered the district offices, some wearing District Attorney jackets. About a half-hour later, the investigators emerged with a computer, said Michael Winsten, who heads CUSD Recall, a pro-recall group.

"There seemed to be some urgency toward the inspection of this computer," Winsten said.

The computer belonged to Kate McIntyre, assistant to Fleming. Fleming does not regularly use a computer himself and dictates a lot of his correspondence to McIntyre, district officials said last month.

Fleming, who was at the district office when investigators arrived, drove away alone about 20 minutes later, witnesses said.

About four hours later the final investigators left with paper sacks and folders.

Tom Russell, a spokesman for one of two pro-recall groups, said the search validates his group's claims that the district has "a culture of corruption."

"The reality is you have a search warrant, which means the D.A. is looking for something truly criminal, felonious," he said.

To get a search warrant, the district attorney would have had to provide an affidavit to a judge showing probable cause that a crime had been committed, said John Barnett, a defense lawyer in Orange County. The search warrant would have to show that the items sought would provide evidence of a crime.

The standard for probable cause "is pretty low," he said.

De Nicola said the raid won't disrupt district operations.

"We're very busy trying to get schools open in a couple weeks," she said. "Our business is educating kids."

District officials also confirmed Monday that Stuart Waldrip, a former Orange County Superior Court judge, will independently investigate recent allegations against the district, including one claiming the creation of a list of political opponents.

The investigation, ordered by trustees July 29, is under way.

Timeline in CUSD

Capistrano Unified has faced numerous investigations, allegations and political challenges in recent months.

April 2005: A San Juan Capistrano father announces he will try to recall all seven trustees. Over six months, he and others collect more than 100,000 valid signatures, but not enough to get the recall on a ballot.

Feb. 28: Deputy District Attorney Susan Schroeder confirms that the Office of the District Attorney is investigating complaints against the district.

July 10: The Orange County Register reports that the district kept a list of political opponents during the recall, including personal information such as where recall leaders' children went to school.

July 11: The Register reports that district officials illegally saw recall petitions and copied down names from the petitions.

July 19: District Superintendent James Fleming announces he will retire.

July 29: Trustees call for an independent investigation of the allegations.