The former superintendent of Poway Unified School District pleaded not guilty to four felony counts of misappropriated public money at his arraignment Thursday.
John Collins, the district's former superintendent, was fired in July 2016 after the district hired a forensic auditor, who found Collins collected more than $300,000 in unauthorized pay by padding his salary, collecting unauthorized vacation payouts and taking off-the-books time off, according to search warrant affidavits seeking all financial records.
Collins was originally facing a fifth felony charge for allegedly filing a false financial disclosure, according to a court charging document. He was not arraigned on that charge Thursday.
The prosecutor said the case is moving forward with just the four charges related to misappropriating funds.
Collins is accused of taking unauthorized pay and vacation with the district's funds, as well as using a district credit card for personal expenses.
In their investigation, the forensic auditor found Collins collected more than $300,000 in unauthorized pay by padding his salary, collecting unauthorized vacation payouts and taking off-the-books time off, according to documents.
Victor Pippins, his defense attorney, said Collins is being treated differently than any other public official for going to doctors appointments, which all public officials do, including prosecutors and judges.
Prosecutor Leon Schorr said he is being treated the same as anyone else caught allegedly stealing public funds.
"In terms of being treated any differently, we just look at what the individual did," Schorr said. "It's not the position they're in or who they are or what they got paid."
In an affidavit asking a judge for permission to review Collins' finances, a District Attorney investigator reported Collins used the district credit card on a 2013 trip to Disneyland with his wife that had nothing to do with school district business.
"Dr. Collins repeatedly violated Poway Unified School District cardholder agreement by using the school district credit card to pay for personal expenses not associated in any way with the school district," Investigator Vincent Giaime wrote in the affidavit. Giaime reported to the judge Collins personal expenses totaled approximately $24,000.
NBC 7 Investigates launched a thorough review of Collins credit card expenses in early 2014. The district's then-counsel, Dan Shinoff, wrote that NBC 7 was "crafting a cruel and vicious tale" about Collins' expenses, which topped other superintendents in the area.
The affidavits list the Disneyland trip as an example of a personal expense billed to the school district.
Collins' defense attorney Paul Pfingst has previously said that his client made the one accounting error during a 30-year career with the district and he paid it back before the bill even became due.
Pippins said his team is confident they will be able to prove his innocence.
"Mr. Collins is obviously disappointed in where this has gone, but Mr. Collins is resolute," he said. "He stands firm in his innocence and we're starting the process of proving that to everyone."
Community members Kim and Christopher Garnier said they have been fighting for years to expose the corruption at the school district, and they credited the media for helping make it happen.
"This is where journalism is just at its pinnacle," they said. "We've had journalists around the community. I have to especially commend Ashly McGlone, from the Voice of San Diego, and journalists around town who knew that there was a story here."
Still, they say, there is more work left to be done to fix the problems at Poway Unified.
"Poway Unified has this stellar reputation and no one wants to believe that something like this is happening there. And community members are speaking but our voices only reach so many," they said.
At the time he lost his job, Collins was the highest paid school superintendent in the county, earning $308,900 per year, with total compensation of $457,347 including extra pay, benefits, and retirement.
If convicted, Collins faces seven years in prison.