Judge Likens School Superintendent Salary Scandal to City of Bell Corruption

The judge said it sounds a lot like the infamous corruption in the city of Bell.

A former Centinela Valley Union High School District superintendent accused of manipulating the school board and its policies and procedures to dramatically increase his pay and benefits during his nearly five-year tenure was ordered Wednesday to stand trial on nine felony counts, including embezzlement and conflict of interest.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen A. Marcus noted that the case against Jose A. Fernandez "bears some resemblance to the city of Bell case,'' in which a former mayor, four ex-city councilmembers, the former city manager and the former assistant city administrator were convicted in a public corruption case.

The judge noted that he believes the school board bears some degree of responsibility, saying that he believed its members could have asked "hard questions."

"At the end of the day, this is a sad situation for the Centinela school district and the people who live there,'' Marcus said.

Following a hearing that began in late January and included periodic court sessions since then, the judge found sufficient evidence to require the 59-year-old defendant to proceed to trial on one count of grand theft by embezzlement of public funds, two counts each of misappropriation of public funds and grand theft and four counts of conflict of interest.

The judge dismissed two other counts of conflict of interest and one additional count of misappropriation of public funds, finding that the "school district had the power to tell Mr. Fernandez 'No.'"

"I can't deny that he took advantage of the naivety and inexperience of the new school board members,'' the judge said. "He negotiated with the school board to get a very favorable contract ... In my opinion, they gave away the store.''

Fernandez's attorney, Vicki Podberesky, countered that it was more of a contract dispute than a criminal case. Outside court, she said that she will file a motion asking another judge to reconsider the charges on which Fernandez was held to answer.

In 2013, Fernandez's wages for purposes of the retirement plan totaled more than $750,000, nearly $500,000 more than the next highest-paid employee of the school district, which operates six schools in Lawndale and Hawthorne, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.

The alleged violations were not discovered until after the D.A.'s office was provided with a copy of a Daily Breeze article in February 2014 about the "excessive salary and fringe benefits'' received by Fernandez, according to the criminal complaint.

The school district unanimously voted in 2014 to fire Fernandez, but did not specify the reason for the firing, the Daily Breeze reported then. Then-Daily Breeze staffers Rob Kuznia and Rebecca Kimitch and their editor, Frank Suraci, subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 2015 for their investigation into the school district and Fernandez's salary. It was the first Pulitzer for the Torrance-based newspaper.

The former superintendent is free on a $495,000 bond while awaiting arraignment May 8 at the downtown Los Angeles courthouse.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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