Judge says former MiraCosta president must repay $1.3 million
By Pat Flynn
SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE
August 13, 2010
A judge has ordered the former president of MiraCosta College to repay about $1.3 million in compensation she has received from the college district under a 2007 settlement in which she agreed to step down and waive her right to sue over employment issues.
Victoria Muñoz Richart and the district agreed to a $1.6 million settlement after the faculty cast a no-confidence vote against her over her investigation into the illegal sale of palm trees that belonged to the college.
Leon Page, an attorney who lives in Carlsbad, quickly sued, contending that state law prohibits public agencies from granting more than 18 months’ worth of salary and benefits in terminating contracts.
He lost at the trial level, but in November the 4th District Court of Appeal agreed that the deal was an unconstitutional gift of public funds and declared the settlement contract void. The appellate court sent the case back to Superior Court to sort out what to do next.
In his ruling, Judge William S. Dato said the solution is to return the parties to the status they had before the agreement was reached, ordering Richart to repay the money within 90 days and reinstating her right to pursue legal claims against the district.
“Technically, she is also relieved of her obligation to step down as president of the district, but the significance of that fact is far from clear,” Dato wrote, noting that the college has a new president (since March 2009) and that “it is unlikely Richart would want to resume the position even if the district board was willing to permit it.”
The ruling also ordered the district to withhold the approximately $300,000 remaining to be paid under the settlement.
Neither Richart nor her attorneys could be reached for comment Friday.
“This was an abusive, corrupt bargain,” Page said of the deal he torpedoed, saying his role was to stand up for the college and taxpayers “since nobody else did.”
Although he has no role in any future dealings between Richart and the Oceanside-based district, Page said, “I think now this can very easily be settled.”
He said he envisions a scenario in which Richart is able to “hold back” some of what she has been paid.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to squeeze every last penny out of Victoria,” Page said.
Michael Gibbs, an attorney for the college district, said that while there have been no discussions since Dato released his ruling Thursday, a settlement is possible.
“I am sure there will be a good-faith effort to reach a resolution,” he said.
And if that doesn’t happen, there “may well be” more litigation in the case, he said.