Former San Benito County Board of Education President Mitchell Dabo said on Dec. 1 he will resign his school board seat, citing fallout from a civil court ruling last month that he illegally took money from a charitable trust.
“I know this has been hard on everyone, the articles, the accusations, the office under attack, etc.,” Dabo wrote county school Superintendent Krystal Lomanto on Dec. 1 in an email obtained by the Free Lance in a public record request. “I will resign my position. I just don’t know when I’ll do it.”
Dabo sent the email to Lomanto the same day that the Free Lance reported that San Benito County District Attorney Candice Hooper would investigate possible criminal fraud or theft charges against him, once she obtained evidence from a Nov. 13 civil trial.
That Superior Court trial in San Benito ended with a civil ruling that Dabo violated state probate laws and diverted money from a charitable trust to his own accounts, denying the Community Foundation for San Benito Country more than $640,000 in money for local charities.
Dabo told the Free Lance last week that he would not seek reelection by his fellow trustees to a third consecutive year as president of the school board, but stopped short of saying he would quit the board, where he has served for 34 years.
Aside from advising the superintendent of his intent to resign, most of the content of three emails sent by Dabo to Lomanto in October, November and December was “redacted”—hidden under thick black lines by Lomanto in “the public interest.”
The redactions included most of an Oct. 24 email, all of a Nov. 24 email, as well as most of the Dec. 1 email from Dabo, and all of a Dec.2 response from Lomanto.
The only statements by Dabo not hidden by Lomanto’s black marker pen indicated Dabo’s concern for his reputation and that of the county Office of Education, which he said was “under attack.” “Thanks for all your support,” he wrote Lomanto.
The school superintendent responded to a Free Lance request by sending copies of 27 emails to or from Dabo over a six-week period, 18 of which were routine board communications from the board secretary.
Lomanto justified her redactions of most of her exchange with Dabo before and after the civil trial as serving the public interest. There was no reference in the un-redacted text to his absences from two board meetings or his decision to not seek reelection as president.
“A portion of the records have been redacted as they contain information not disclosable under Government Code…as they are not ‘public records,” she said in a letter to the Free Lance accompanying the emails.
She said she was justified in redacting public records for public view “if the public interest served by not disclosing the records clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosing the records.”
The California Constitution, Article 1, Section 3, b (1) states that “The people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business, and, therefore, the meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny.”
The school board’s attorney, Matthew P. Juhl-Darlington of Chico, CA, contends that Lomanto was “required to make” the redactions in the emails before releasing them.
He also wrote that “Mr. Dabo’s privacy would be violated if certain email communications had not been redacted.”
When asked to identify the specific section of state law used to to justify each redaction, Lomanto deferred to her attorney, who wrote, “To be clear, the [County Office of Education] is not required to create a list of specific exceptions tied to each specific redaction,” citing a 2001 court decision.
The California First Amendment Coalition disagrees, stating that the numerous exemptions allowed by the California Public Records Act are not mandatory, but up to the discretion of the public official or public body.
Juhl-Darlington, in response to a Free Lance question, said the question of blocking content in the released emails did not come up before the full school board.
“Since the [California Public Records Act request was sent to your office,” he wrote Lomanto this week, ”then you as the County Superintendent of Schools was responsible for producing responsive records per Mr. Holtzclaw’s request, and making redactions per advice from the [County Office of Education]’s legal counsel.”
Dabo did not attend board meetings on Nov. 30 or Dec. 14, when Joan Campbell-Garcia was elected the new president. He also did not attend the Nov. 13 trial, saying he could not afford an attorney.
The Hollister Police Department earlier this month opened its own criminal investigation, and received a binder of evidence of – canceled checks, bank statements and court documents – from District Attorney Candice Hooper showing withdrawals of money from the Matulich Charitable Trust by Dabo. The evidence, presented at the trial of Dabo’s civil lawsuit by the Community Foundation for San Benito County, had been delivered to Hooper by the Free Lance.
A Superior Court judge on Nov. 13 awarded the foundation $1.74 million in damages, plus legal fees estimated at $85,000. The final court papers ordering Dabo to pay the judgment had not yet been filed this week.