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San Diego Unified school board President Marne Foster held a fundraiser last weekend – not for her campaign or for a charitable cause, but for her family. An ethics expert called the setup for donations odd, but not necessarily illegal.
San Diego Unified school board President Marne Foster held a fundraiser last weekend – not for her campaign or for a charitable cause, but for her family.
On Saturday, she held a benefit concert for her two adult sons, one of whose financial aid fell through last year, Foster said, and has accumulated a $32,000 debt. She said the benefit pulled in $4,000 – a modest sum, but one that will help her son pay for his junior year at Howard University.
She spread it through her networks online and told donors the money would be tax deductible. She told me the money is going through the C. Anthony Cole Repertory Dance Theatre, which is registered with the IRS as a nonprofit. But the crowdfunding page where people actually donate says money goes directly to Foster.
Anthony Cole, who leads the nonprofit, said he didn’t have time to discuss the details, but sent a letter explaining that he has known Foster’s family for years and was happy to help support them.
When I asked him how his money would go from the nonprofit to Foster’s sons, he wrote: “I don’t see how any of these questions are germane to an article about two young men attempting to complete their education.”
Elected officials are often heavily scrutinized for efforts that direct resources to themselves or their families.
But there’s nothing necessarily illegal or unethical about the fundraiser, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and vice president of the L.A. Ethics Commission. So long as Foster followed certain rules.
Foster can’t use school district resources to promote the event, host it on district property, for example, or solicit funds from employees and contractors who have business before the school board. She must disclose any gifts over $50, once a year. There’s also a provision in state law that says public officials can’t engage in or benefit from activities that contradict their duties in office.
That’s broad language.
Foster said she committed none of those transgressions, she simply posted the event on Facebook.
School district employees turned up at the event, including teachers and fellow school board member John Lee Evans, who donated $100. Teachers union president Lindsay Burningham also made an appearance.
Levinson said it is odd that a nonprofit would raise funds for the benefit of one or two specific individuals, when the purpose of a nonprofit is to serve an educational or charitable purpose for the community.
But she articulated the larger point this way: “[Foster] is making decisions on behalf of the government that affect other people, and those people might feel obligated to donate. The way she’s raising money certainly isn’t conventional, but it might not be illegal.”
In other words, the concern is that Foster is using her official position to directly benefit herself and family members.
The same theme happens to be the focus of a recent report by San Diego County’s civil Grand Jury.
The report alleges that Foster overstepped her boundaries as a school board member last year by meddling in day-to-day operations of a school her son attended. Staff members at the school were afraid to speak out in fear of retribution from Foster, the report says.
The Grand Jury makes recommendations, but doesn’t have the power to enforce them. Its reports, however, do compel a formal response from public agencies in question. San Diego Unified’s response is expected by August.
Also last year, John Marsh, the father of Foster’s son, filed a claim with the district, asking for $250,000. Marsh said that a counselor had written a damaging college reference for his son, which kept him out of his schools of choice and cost him money in college scholarships.
That claim was denied last May, said district spokeswoman Ursula Kroemer, and the district awarded him no money.
Foster dismissed any concerns raised in the Grand Jury report as part of an ongoing effort to create a misleading narrative about her, for political purposes. She said she has fought passionately for equity for all students, which not everyone appreciates.
“Sometimes, what happens is that when you fight for all students, folks go after you,” she said.
She said she is confident the truth will prevail.
“San Diego is not going to find fault in someone who is a real person, from the community, raised in the community, who is a parent, who is a teacher, who is an administrator, who has a singular focus on students,” she said. “I sleep well at night.”