Following months of allegations, San Diego Unified School Board trustee Marne Foster resigned over something that had never surfaced publicly.

She pleaded guilty Tuesday to a misdemeanor charge of accepting illegal gifts as a public official. Her resignation from the school board, effective Feb. 7, was part of her plea agreement.

But her defense attorney and the prosecution acknowledged that high-profile allegations made against her had played an important role in her resignation.

They both said the public issues she’d faced in the media, which also led to an investigation into her conduct by the school district, were part of negotiations that eventually led to the plea agreement.

“We were looking at a lot of different charges and considering all sorts of possibilities,” said Leon Schorr, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case.

It was Foster’s failure to disclose a series of gifts from Janet Hunter, a “benefactor in the community,” Schorr said, that led to the charge, which prohibits officials from receiving gifts in excess of $460 per year from a single source.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Hunter paid for Foster’s youngest son, Malachi Foster, to attend drama camp, and airfare to and from Pace University in New York. The gifts totaled $3,487.

No other charges were formally filed against Foster, and the DA’s office agreed not to pursue charges in the future on the allegations that plagued Foster since 2014. The school district could take further action, though Foster’s defense attorney Adam Gordon said he didn’t anticipate it doing so, since she had resigned.

Also included in Foster’s plea agreement: She will serve three years’ probation, she cannot run for political office for four years and she must pay Hunter back the value of the gift.

Schorr said the DA’s office accepted the deal after considering the effect a “long, drawn-out” trial would have on the district.

Neither would discuss what other charges might have been associated with other allegations against Foster.

“This isn’t getting off easy,” Schorr said. “This is a major, major life hit for her.”

Foster failed to disclose the gifts from Hunter in an ethics filing in April 2015. Foster later amended the filing to reflect the gift after she was approached by county prosecutors.

Neither Gordon nor Schorr would immediately provide more details on Hunter or her relationship with Foster and the school district.

Gordon said it was his contention there was not a quid-pro-quo between Hunter and Foster relating to the gifts.

The search warrant executed by the DA on Dec. 10, which would indicate what other avenues the prosecutors explored, remains sealed.

Last year was a rough one for Foster.

Among the news to come out of the past several months:

Foster pressured Superintendent Cindy Marten to remove Mitzi Lizarraga from her post as principal of the School of Creative and Performing Arts, the school her son attended. That demand was met. In 2014, that principal was forced to leave the school. Later, she left the district.

Foster demanded district staff address the actions of Kim Abagat, an SCPA counselor who wrote a less-than-flattering college evaluation letter for Foster’s son. Abgat was suspended for nine days without pay, records show. In January, Abagat filed a lawsuit against San Diego Unified, claiming she was retaliated against. Another former staff member at the school, James Jacoby, said he was removed from SCPA for suspending one of Foster’s sons.

Foster demanded that a new college evaluation letter replace the less-than-flattering letter. That letter, which contained false information, was submitted.

A legal claim was filed against the district by the father of Foster’s son, John Marsh, argued the unflattering evaluation letter kept Foster’s son out of his schools of choice, and sought $250,000 in compensation. Initially, Foster told San Diego Union-Tribune she had nothing to do with the claim. Marsh later told VOSD this was a lie: Foster wrote the complaint, and told him to sign it and submit it in his name, he said.

Foster held a private fundraiser to benefit her sons, spreading word of the event through her professional connections. District employees as well as vendors who had business before the school board attended the fundraising event. Foster later apologized for the fundraiser, calling it a “mistake of the heart.”

Andrew Keatts and Ry Rivard contributed to this story. 

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed a quote. Leon Schorr, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case, said, “This isn’t getting off easy. This is a major, major life hit for her.”

    This article relates to: Corrections, Education, Must Reads, School Leadership

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    Barbara Stevens
    Barbara Stevens subscriber

    Are we just clapping our hands and declaring this over?

    So who was so very supportive of Foster in the first place? Is she keeping her job at the Community College?

    Should her activities THERE be questioned and investigated? 

    How does it happen that a Board both commends her and initiates an investigation into her activites on the same day?

    What is going to happen to all the people who assisted her in this effort and made life unpleasant for other staff?  the teacher who had to spend her own money on an attorney against this woman's actions? 

    Who is this Janet Hunter, and why was she covering expenses for Foster's kids? 

    All this was happening at the same time the misdeeds of Board Members in the South Bay were being investigated and discussed very publicly. How does that happen amongst a Board that is truly paying attention?

    DistrictDeeds wordpress com
    DistrictDeeds wordpress com subscriber

    @Kathy S @MarioKoran Absolutely right Kathy...shows exactly how deep and pervasive the reach and the influence of her corrupt powerful political backers actually is to get the plea down to one count with obvious other major violations of City, State, Federal and SDUSD laws and rules. It is a plea BARGAIN and what a bargain Foster got due to her donors.

    Fortunately there are lawsuits and other potential violations that were not under the plea bargain agreement that are out of the influence of her politically influential and rich donors.

    SDUSD Superintendent Cindy Marten, her accomplice in her misdeeds per the Grand Jury and other testimony, should be next.

    Sit back and enjoy Kathy!

    DistrictDeeds wordpress com
    DistrictDeeds wordpress com subscriber

    @Kathy S @DistrictDeeds wordpress com @MarioKoran Thank you Kathy for being a reader and thanks for your negative endorsement...coming from you it is greatly appreciated!  

    To help your documentation search to prove allegations on District Deeds, read the Grand Jury Report we link to, the weak cover up Grand Jury response by Marten, and the 61 page data dump coverup by Marten and our line by line exposure of Marten and Foster lies and false alibis in response to those documents.  Hope this helps.  

    Ken Brucker
    Ken Brucker subscriber

    I hope that this leads to a resolution of this matter. What is unclear with me is if this - an exchange about a video that Kathleen Harmon released in November - was somehow supposed to be a kind of a defense of Ms. Foster.

    Ken Brucker
    Ken Brucker subscriber

    @Kathy S

    1. Who are you?
    2. When do you allege that this conversation occurred?
    3. Where do you allege that this conversation occurred?
    4. Who can you muster to both affirm that this conversation ever happened and identify themselves?
    5. How many megatons is the nuclear weapon in the trunk of your car?

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    Satisfactory ending to a sad story.  The thing that has yet to be dealt with is the complicity of SDUSD administration, including the Superintendent, in accommodating Foster's demands.  Particularly outrageous to me is her demand that an unfavorable but accurate letter on her son's performance be replaced by a favorable but untrue one, and the fact the district accommodated her.  

    The claim by Cindy Marten that Foster has a right to make such demands "as a parent" may be true, but it doesn't justify acquiescing to them.  To believe that Foster's position on the school board DIDN'T cause such actions is confirmation that the district is hopelessly corrupt.

    Cornelius Ogunsalu
    Cornelius Ogunsalu

    I sincerely hope that Marne Foster and the other three trustees are eventually subjected to FBI and federal scrutiny, for the $250,000 fraud that the DA's office has [refused] to prosecute. What message is being sent to the thousands of people being prosecuted in San Diego courts for lesser crimes and who are being convicted and incarcerated for lesser crimes than Marne Foster has committed, excluding the "gift" crime she pled to?

    She was not even in court for her conviction.

    How is that for justice in San Diego? She has shown no remorse and continues to sing that song "Doing it for the students of SDUSD."

    Prosecuting Foster for the $250,000 fraudulent claim would have meant Evans, Beiser and Barrera will also be exposed! This is not over by any stretch of the imagination, until those three trustees are also investigated. I also hope that Evans, Beiser and Barrera realize that very high-powered binoculars are focused on them now! They should abandon all their plans of personal gain shenanigans that they've had in the works before Foster was exposed.

    It is totally a miscarriage of justice to allow Foster to go scot free like this, and not investigate her co-conspirators and enablers as well! I was wondering how it was going to be pulled off . . . now we see it!

    Anniej subscriber

    Cornelius Ogansalu - what is that saying 'it's not over til the fat lady sings' - Sweetwaters corruption dealt with Superintendent Jesus Gandara first, which then to four Board members, a past Board member and several others in the infamous PAY TO PLAY scandal which revolved around 'CONSTRUCTION. Something? tells me the fat lady has not 'sung'.

    Christie Ritter
    Christie Ritter memberauthor

    Let's not forget that in the midst of this investigation, Foster's fellow elected school board trustees, led by Mr. Barrera and Mr. McQuary, chose to pass a resolution honoring Foster for her service on the board. From Sept. 29:

    I would like to see a follow-up story about how much this whole episode has cost the district. The cost of the district's investigation, staff time, payouts to employees who were impacted by the meddling at SCPA. All of that is money that was stolen from the students the district is tasked to serve.

    DistrictDeeds wordpress com
    DistrictDeeds wordpress com subscriber

    @MarioKoran @DistrictDeeds wordpress com Nice recap article Mario.  It is sad that someone with all the promise and support that Foster had when elected was squandered and helped to diminish the office that she held and the trust of the electorate.  Finally, 20 months of reporting this on my blog and helping local news sources get the real story, a measure of justice has been done and she can do no more harm to the Stakeholders of the SDUSD.

    As for "Last year was a rough one for Foster"...I would suggest that it was a MUCH rougher year for Principal Lizarraga - who was ripped from her position, Kim Abagat - who was suspended and accused just for telling the truth and all the students and stakeholders that bore the brunt of Foster and Marten's misdeeds.  The only "rough" part of this past year for Foster is that she GOT PROSECUTED...FINALLY!

    Now it is time for Cindy Marten to be investigated for her accomplice role in Foster's actions within the SDUSD.  Foster could have done NOTHING to Principal Lizarraga or Counselor Abagat without Marten's DIRECT intervention.  Marten and current Board members have been quoted as saying that she is solely responsible for all hirings, firings and disciplinary action in the SDUSD.  There is no doubt that she bears the responsibility.

    The closed Board Meeting yesterday was addressing Marten's performance evaluation.  Let's wait and see if Trustees Barerra, Beiser, Evans and McQuary had the courage and the ethics to truly try and heal the wounds inflicted by Foster and Marten and make Marten ALSO pay the price for her improper actions.

    I hope Mario and the rest of the local press do NOT make Foster the lone scapegoat and let Marten off the hook. 

    craig Nelson
    craig Nelson

    The lesson to be learned here:  If you are going to lie, cheat & steal - do so in public office , you will get nothing but a slap on the wrist -- and probably a pension!

    For the Kids
    For the Kids subscriber

    Marne's attorney states, “This is a major, major life hit for her.” Is he trying to make us feel sorry for her? She did it to herself. The public didn't even know about the charge she pled guilty to, so my question is, how many more times did she break the law and get away with it...other than the issues that were made public? Her sense of entitlement is staggering. She is a disgrace to the ethical elected officials. Good riddance.

    Ed Price
    Ed Price

    Justice is about making the damaged whole again, so what about the cost of this entire project? Marne Foster gets off with just returning the money and some short probation while the taxpayers are out her salary and expenses while she was doing illegal acts, plus the school board personnel harmed by Marne's cover-up and revenge actions. And what happens when those people sue the school board for workplace harassment and damages; what will it cost to defend those suits and what will the settlements be (think about Filner's effect on San Diego)?

    Justice is not served if the DA plea bargains a tiny charge and let's the really big issues get dismissed in the bargain. What about the filing of that bogus lawsuit (perjury & fraud?) with Marne's husband, what about money-raising for her son's expenses (tax evasion?), what about wages lost and careers damaged by Marne's vengeance?

    SherryS subscriber

    And what about stealing free lunches intended for needy children.

    Ed Price
    Ed Price

    Now who is this Janet Hunter, who made what was an illegal contribution to a public official? The briber is as corrupt as the bribe; corruption must be discouraged on both ends of the money pipeline.

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    What brought Marne down?  Marne brought Marne down.

    Katie Anderson
    Katie Anderson subscriber

    Mario, it has been a joy following your consistent work on this. It's a very sad story, but your work helped to shine a light on the inner workings of an over-sized, under-funded, adult-centered, disaster of a school district. Countless parents have spent decades at a time trying to shift the focus back to the kids, only to be thwarted by people who, in reality, are at the district for their own benefit. Thank you for exposing all of this.

    EducatedMom subscribermember

    A misdemeanor?  Seems like a slap on the wrist to me, given all the possible allegations that it seems she will be spared from prosecution under this agreement (particularly the allegation she forged the $250,000 legal claim against the district).  The irony is that had she quietly resigned when the first wave of allegations hit her, perhaps the DA would not have so actively investigated.  The definition of hubris.

    Anniej subscriber

    While I understand the financial constraints of a long trial, I can't help but wonder what other potential bigger issues Ms, Foster feared might come out and if others might be implicated. Is there more to come, other hidden issues, hmmmmm? None the less San Diego City/County has seen San Ysidro, Sweetwater and now SD City Schools Leadership USE vs SERVE - No doubt Mr. Schorr never dreamed he would be called on to use his Dept. to investigate of all things - SCHOOL BOARD LEADERSHIP improprieties -

    vheman subscriber

    Dishonest, crooked and despicable. She got off easy. Imagine if she'd been successful in taking 250k from the district. Good riddance.

    obboy13 subscriber

    Great work Mario.  Your's was some of the finest investigative reporting I can recall reading in 40+ years here in San Diego. 

    I guess now we know definitively that Marne the Mom, and Marne the Elected Official are in fact one and the same person and can not be separated.  I wonder what that does for Cindy Marten's defense that she treated Marne just as she would have any other parent?

    Richard del Rio
    Richard del Rio subscriber

    This is good news for the staff, students and families of SD Unified and the citizenry in general. Some of the other accusations seemed far more egregious but this was an easily provable charge. Good work on the part of the VOSD.

    Grammie subscribermember

    Who is going to make those who lost the jobs they loved, were demoted etc. whole again? What about the students who lost beloved staff, why are they punished?

    francesca subscriber

    How will Marne be replaced?  How soon?

    My understanding is that school district owned property cannot be sold without a 4-1 vote in favor.

    Since Kevin Beiser voted no on the Scripps Ranch sale to Monarch, to build apartments, the board only voted 3-1 in favor of this financial deal.

    Without a replacement for Marne, there can be no business transaction.

    Jim Biddle
    Jim Biddle subscribermember

    Marvelous work Mario. This outcome is at least six months later than it should be. Some folks go to jail for less.

    Elmer Walker
    Elmer Walker subscriber

    I agree with the job Mario did. The agreement should have kept Foster from EVER holding public office. as she was as guilty as any public official I've seen.My guess is Cindy Martin will also be allowed to resign or face prosecution for her involvement.

    bcat subscriber

    @Elmer Walker 

    I hope you are right about Martin.  If she was involved to the extent that the VoSD has reported, action should be taken.  However, it is not clear if her actions were criminal or just unethical.

    Is it clear to you that she violated the law?

    Elmer Walker
    Elmer Walker subscriber

    @bcat @Elmer Walker From what VOSD reported it looks like Foster committed criminal acts. Martins actions allowed her to expand her actions therefore she is complicit, or in legal terms aiding and abetting. I guess we will just have to wait and she if she has the political power to not be charged.

    Judy Neufeld-Fernandez
    Judy Neufeld-Fernandez subscribermember

    @bcat @Elmer Walker  We will see if Marten broke laws here...I am anxious for a true analysis.  However, in the area of obstructing justice for child sexual assault victims I personally have seen evidence that needs to be judged (Michael Guerreri's VERY important lawsuit personally naming Martin, Donovan and Duran for minimizing assault on kids AND NOT REPORTING TO PROPER AUTHORITIES as her PSA states should be done under law.)  I speak with victims' parents on a continual basis; I have yet to hear ONE parent state their child received a proper and true investigation to their at school abuse, be it physical, neglect, sexual or mental anguish. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

    Follow District Deeds a blog by parent, Frank Engle,  he exposed Marne LONG ago and is working to expose the truth in child abuse cover up.  I also do write as a guest writer for District Deeds and seek to see penal codes enforced with regard to child abuse occurring in schools.  There are far greater crimes being committed and covered up in our schools.  Mario, keep the light shining on the district for our kids' sake.

    David subscriber

    Great job Mario. Please look into Cindy Martin's involvement - she is a part of these incidents. Bullies, even superintendents, shouldn't be tolerated in the field of education.

    richard gibson
    richard gibson subscriber

    Great jo, Mario. What brought Foster down was, in the main, your work. But she didn't go down nearly as far as she deserved. More consequences in the works?