MUSD Accused of Cover Up in ‘Whistleblower’ Lawsuit

July 6, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

The Montebello Unified School District continues under fire as two former high-ranking district officials allege they were fired for exposing political corruption in Los Angeles County’s second largest school district.

Ex-Superintendent Susanna Contreras Smith and former Chief Financial and Operations Officer Cleve Pell last Friday filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the district in Los Angeles Superior Court. The lawsuit claims Contreras Smith and Pell are whistleblowers who lost their jobs for coming forward about alleged misconduct by the Board of Education and fired Chief Business Officer Ruben
J. Rojas.

The suit seeks unspecified damages, compensatory and punitive damages, in addition to reinstatement.

The lawsuit alleges Contreras Smith and Pell were fired for looking into the board’s possible involvement in alleged misconduct by Rojas.

School board members terminated Pell and Contreras Smith in November 2016, releasing a statement that they had been fired over “a difference of opinion.”

Pell was a longtime MUSD administrator who has served in various upper-management positions, including co-superintendent. Contreras Smith joined the school district in 2012 and was promoted to co-superintendent in 2013 and superintendent in 2015.

Under intense pressure from the community and employee unions, school board members voted about four months ago to terminate Rojas, whose resume and job application it was determined were full of false statements and made-up references.

Rojas’ detractors also blamed him for MUSD’s financial woes, which earlier this year prompted the state to agree to conduct a financial audit of the school district.

The Los Angeles County Department of Education had issued warnings to the district that it was in danger of not meeting its financial obligations and the county would be forced to send in someone to oversee district finances if board members failed to make significant cuts in spending to shore up an estimated $17million deficit. In response, board members voted to send out hundreds of layoff notices to teachers and other district employees, the majority of which were later rescinded.

Angry MUSD employees accused Rojas’ of just months earlier creating a false rosy picture of district finances.

Board members had come under fire for their failure to act swiftly and openly on the matter. They were criticized for not fully vetting Rojas before he was hired.

The suit states that Rojas, who was in charge of the district’s $300 million budget, “was directing lucrative MUSD contracts to cronies in violation of public contracting laws.”

Rojas’ alleged actions, if proven, would violate the state’s Public Contract Code and other laws.

In the suit, Rojas is described as “an individual who had crisscrossed California looking for school districts to exploit for his personal benefit.”

Rojas’ alleged wrongdoing prompted Contreras Smith to put him on leave and she and Pell brought their findings to the board.

The board ignored their findings, according to the lawsuit, which claims that the trustees “sought to cover up the web of corruption surrounding Rojas, engineering his return from leave by false pretenses and then voted to terminate Contreras Smith and Pell in retaliation for their whistleblowing.”

EGP reported at the time that the firing prompted someone to create musdcorruption.com, a website critical of the district that claims the two former administrators were actually fired because they tried to take a stand against corruption.

EGP reached out to Boardmember Ben Cardenas for comment, but his office cited district policy that they do not comment on pending litigation.

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