Former Poway Supe Used District Card At Disneyland: Search Warrants

Collins Defense Attorney Says Charge Was Error; Paid Back Before Bill Was Due

Search warrant affidavits seeking all financial records about former Poway Unified School District Superintendent John Collins between 2012 and 2016 provide details about the District Attorney's case against him.

Collins is facing five felony charges for allegedly misusing public money and filing a false financial disclosure form.

The 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.

The affidavits, served over the course of 2016 and 2017, ask a judge for permission to review Collins financial and medical records.

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.

"On Sunday, May 26, 2013, Dr. Collins utilized the school district credit card to pay for lodging at Marriot Anaheim. Tina McDowell, Dr. Collins' Executive Assistant submitted a memo to the finance department reporting that Dr. Collins had used the card by mistake. Dr. Collins' calendar indicates Collins' wife was at Disneyland for a dance competition," one affidavit states.

Collins defense attorney Paul Pfingst said Collins made the one accounting error during a 30-year career with the district and he paid it back before the bill even became due.

The affidavits also accuse Collins of failing to report gifts on his state-mandated form 700's – paperwork meant to track gifts to public officials so the community can monitor the influence those gifts might bring. The economic disclosures are filed under penalty of perjury.

The court records detail how Collins became a paid consultant of the Education Research and Development Institute (ERDI), which paid approximately $1,300 for him to attend conferences and $4,200 as a consultant in 2013. Collins did not report the income on his form 700 or the gifted travel expense, the documents allege.

In another instance noted by investigators, Collins stayed at the Waldorf Astoria Resort for a Build America Mutual conference and served on a panel discussing local government. The organization paid for his airfare, lodging, and meals, but the expenses were not reported on Collins economic disclosures, the warrants state.

Build America Mutual is a municipal bond insurer, according to its website. 

The warrants list calendar appointments for medical trips to doctors and dentists, alleging Collins failed to put in for approximately $18,000 worth of sick time to attend the doctor appointments. 

Collins' attorney Pfingst said his client was a salaried employee and the top administrator of a successful school district, who often stayed late at board meetings or handled district business while traveling or at home.

"The accusations do not take into account the modern workplace where we are all constantly 'plugged-in' and constantly doing our job," Pfingst said. "Also, he's not an hourly employee. He often stayed late at board meetings for which he received no extra compensation. If he could do a better job in three hours than any other administrator could do in 80 hours, that might make a great news story, but it's not criminal."

The documents accuse Collins of collecting unauthorized vacation payouts. 

For example, the affidavit notes a Nov. 19, 2015, withdrawal from Poway Unified School District's revolving cash fund for $17,000.

"Dr. Collins later sends a text message to his wife saying 'On my way to deposit 17,000 at MFCU. I am planning to put $1,000 in your account today and more later for Chrismas shopping. The room at Harrah's is free and we still have $150 in gift certificates at Harrah's," the investigator wrote in the affidavit.

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. But the affidavits and school district documents included in a forensic audit show Collins was facing personal financial problems so serious, his checking account was sometimes overdrawn, and he had to short sell his house before foreclosure in 2013. 

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