Accountability Featured Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Former JROTC cadet at North High in Torrance says he was sodomized in hazing ritual

Rob Kuznia

 August 13, 2013 

In a legal battle that has quietly dragged on for three years, a former member of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at North High School is accusing the Torrance Unified School District of failing to take action after he reportedly was sodomized during a hazing ritual.

The plaintiff says that the JROTC instructor in charge found out about the alleged incident but, after a brief investigation, neglected to report the case to the police or his superiors at Torrance Unified.

The teen’s family decided to contact the Daily Breeze earlier this month because the former cadet turned 18 in late June.

“The story needs to be told,” said Ricardo Rodriguez, the accuser’s stepfather, who is acting as the family’s spokesman. “The teacher didn’t report it to the school principal, the campus police or anything. They are trying to make this thing hush-hush — under the table.”

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Accountability Featured Washington Post

Stormy Daniels friend describes listening in on her phone calls with Trump

By Beth Reinhard and Rob Kuznia

March 13, 2018

A close friend of Stormy Daniels is confirming her affair with Donald Trump more than a decade ago — saying he listened in on their phone conversations — and defending her efforts to get out of the $130,000 hush agreement she made shortly before the 2016 election.

Read more


Accountability Featured Washington Post

Is the presidency good for Trump’s business? Not necessarily at this golf course

Is the presidency good for Trump’s business? Not necessarily at this golf course.

At President Trump’s golf club in Southern California, there is a driving range on a cliff, with a stunning view of the blue Pacific. There’s room for 24 golfers.

But, on a recent afternoon, there was only one.

And he was playing with a guilty conscience.

“I feel like I’m cheating on my wife,” said Richard Sullivan, a 59-year-old doctor.


(Click here to read the rest.)

Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Lennox school board member accused of pulling strings for daughter

Lennox school board member accused of pulling strings so credit-deficient daughter can walk stage at graduation

Commencement ceremonies for Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., on June 8, 2013. School board members, including Mercedes Ybarra, are seated at the far right end of the front row. Photo by Jeff Gritchen / Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)
Commencement ceremonies for Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy. Photo by Jeff Gritchen

This was the first in a series of stories about the dysfunction of a low-income school district whose leaders were using their influential positions to punish enemies and reward friends and family. The series was awarded first place by the California Newspaper Publishers Association for local-government coverage in the large-newspaper category. 

Originally published on June 11, 2013

A Lennox school board member is under fire for reportedly pulling strings to allow her daughter to participate in her high school commencement ceremony even though she did not earn nearly enough credits to walk the stage this past weekend.

The tiny community has been buzzing all week with claims that the daughter of board member Mercedes Ibarra was able to enjoy senior privileges when she didn’t earn them at the Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy — a high-performing charter high school.

(Related story: More details emerge on Lennox Academy uproar)

The school district refused to release the student’s academic records and Ibarra did not return calls from the Daily Breeze this week, but a colleague on the school board, Juan Navarro, confirmed the rumors are true.

Navarro said the privileges included not only walking the stage at graduation on Saturday, but also attending the annual GradNite celebration in Disneyland in May.

“Let’s not forget: When you become a board member, you’re not there just for your own child,” Navarro said. “You’re there for all the children. You can’t be asking favors or asking administrators for favors for your own children. That’s not right.”

Dignitaries, including Mercedes Ibarra, center, congratulate graduates during commencement ceremonies for Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy Teacher at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., on June 8, 2013. (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)
Dignitaries, including Mercedes Ibarra, center, congratulate graduates during commencement ceremonies for Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy Teacher at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., on June 8, 2013. (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)

(Related story: Lennox school superintendent says 2 board members ‘usurped’ her duties)

Widely considered a model for serving disadvantaged student populations, Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy is a consistent presence on the U.S. News & World Report’s list of top American high schools. In April, the school ranked 39th nationwide and sixth among schools in California.

In past years, Navarro and others say, administrators at the school have strictly enforced a rule enshrined in the school handbook: seniors who are significantly credit-deficient cannot participate in commencement or any senior activities. For whatever reason, that rule was thrown out for this year’s seniors, allowing Ibarra’s daughter and a handful of other students short on credits to partake.

(Related story: Lennox school board election a referendum on year of turmoil)

In all, of the 135 students who participated in the ceremony, six hadn’t met the criteria, sources say.

The abuse-of-power accusation over graduation privileges is just the latest chapter in a saga of division this year in the Lennox School District, which has become a fractious environment since the July hiring of new Superintendent Barbara Flores.

Although Ibarra could not be reached for comment, the superintendent who works for her, Flores, returned calls from the Daily Breeze late Tuesday to issue a statement about the matter.

“As superintendent, my job is to protect the rights of every student,” she said. “After examining all the relevant factors, six students were allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony because they met the policy limit. Even board members’ children have rights. To elaborate beyond that would be to violate the privacy rights of every student.”

Asked if the directive came from Ibarra, Flores said no. Asked what led to the policy change, Flores declined to comment beyond what was in her statement.

Reached Tuesday, the school’s principal, Armando Mena, declined to comment, referring calls back to Flores.

But Navarro said he believes Ibarra and other higher-ups pressured the principal to change the rules.

“Mercedes didn’t do this alone,” he said. “She had to have the support of the superintendent and (deputy superintendent Kent) Taylor.”

School officials say Ibarra was involved in a similar situation a couple of years ago, at Lennox Middle School. Margaret Sanchez, a veteran assistant principal at the school who is retiring at the end of the year, said Ibarra asked administrators at the school to allow another of her children to participate in the school’s end-of-the-year promotion ceremony, even though the student hadn’t met the academic requirements. In that instance, Sanchez said, the administrators denied the request, and were backed by then-Superintendent Fred Navarro.

In another element of this year’s graduation furor, Ibarra and an ally on the board — President Marisol Cruz — publicly requested to attend the May 17 trip to Disneyland, and to ride in the same bus as the students. But the women were late for the bus, which left without them, Navarro said.

Sources say the board members then demanded that the school provide some other form of transportation, and were ultimately taken to Disneyland in a school van driven by a school employee.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Cruz declined to comment on the specific events, but said she doesn’t believe the Daily Breeze’s coverage of the district’s recent troubles has been fair.

“It’s just disappointing to continually hear negative slants being covered when not all the facts are there,” she said, declining to elaborate because she believes the academic record of Ibarra’s daughter is a private matter. (Ibarra’s daughter is 18.)

Cruz did say, in apparent defense of Ibarra, that “any mom would fight for her child.”

“Why should we break a student’s right because their mom is a board member?” she asked.

The dust-up over the graduation activities is just the latest controversy to roil the tiny district this year.

Situated directly beneath the flight path of passenger jets landing at Los Angeles International Airport, the Lennox School District serves a highly disadvantaged student population. The district — which is composed of five elementary schools, one middle school and the charter high school — has racked up accolades over the years for its success relative to other districts in California with similar demographics.

Marisol Cruz, Mercedes Ibarra and Kent Taylor. Photo by Jeff Gritchen
Marisol Cruz, Mercedes Ibarra and Kent Taylor. Photo by Jeff Gritchen

But the district this year has become a political battlefield, with factions lining up for and against the controversial new superintendent. Before Flores was hired in July, the 65-year-old veteran professor of education at Cal State San Bernardino had never worked as a school administrator. Critics say she has led with a heavy hand, hiring friends as consultants and firing or demoting anyone seen as a potential detractor.

Supporters say she has improved relations between the administration and teachers, and done a good job of shielding teachers from cuts.

“We’ve been able to keep 20-to-1,” said Cruz, referring to the once widely adopted practice in California of keeping class sizes at or below 20 students in grades kindergarten through third grade. “Nobody in the county has been able to pull that off but we did.”

Mirroring the divisiveness districtwide, the Lennox school board has been split on Flores’ leadership, with a slim majority in support. Navarro and Ibarra are on opposite sides of that dividing line.

The tension publicly erupted in November, when Brian Johnson, an administrator with 35 years of experience in Lennox, was placed on administrative leave. In a memo circulated to district employees about his departure, Flores — without mentioning Johnson by name — wrote that construction money might have been misspent, and, if so, “any parties” involved would “subject to legal action.”

Long-timers in the district came to Johnson’s vigorous defense, vouching for his integrity.

From that point on, the environment has been toxic, fraught with finger-pointing, rumors, accusations of nepotism and charges of retaliatory firings.

At times, the accusations have been nasty, suggesting an undercurrent of racial and class tensions. In February, a group of employees, in an anonymous complaint to the District Attorney’s Office that included a long list of allegations against the pro-Flores camp, accused Ibarra of not being a U.S. citizen or a resident of Lennox. Ibarra vehemently denied it, likening the accusations to claims made from the fringe that President Barack Obama is not an American citizen.

Late last month, a separate complaint was sent to the Fair Political Practices Commission. This one — also anonymous — alleged that Ibarra advocated to have her husband hired as a custodian. Indeed, the school board on Feb. 12 did vote to hire him as a substitute custodian. The complaint further alleges that Flores saw to it that he use a pseudonym. The minutes of that meeting list him as Francisco I. Perez.

“The Superintendent directed secretary and Human Resources Department to not use his official legal last name of ‘Ibarra’ so that it would not be noticeable,'” the complaint states. “The Board of Trustees took action and hired Mrs. Mercedes Ibarra’s husband, not connecting the two because of the different last name on the agenda.”

The accuser believes the act violates the a conflict-of-interest law — Government Code 1090 — which states that elected officials are not to have any financial stake in a contract made by them or by the board on which they sit.

The FPPC received the complaint, but will not pursue it because the Government Code that was allegedly broken (1090) is not within the agency’s jurisdiction, said Gary Winuk, chief of the FPPC’s enforcement division, in an email to the Daily Breeze.

“You may be interested to know we are sponsoring a bill, AB 1090, to give us some jurisdiction over this,” he added.

Meanwhile, the high school graduation ceremony has been generating enough buzz in Lennox to reach the ears of other graduating students, a couple of whom called the Daily Breeze to voice their displeasure.

“I don’t know how it happened or why, but I do want to say it’s insulting to me,” said Laura Rosales, who graduated in the top 15 percent of her class. This fall, Rosales will attend Cal State Long Beach.

Today, Lennox Middle School will hold its own promotion ceremony for eighth-graders moving on to high school. Apparently the district isn’t extending the same pardon to the credit-deficient students there. Staff members at the school confirmed that 70 of the 520 students in the class will not be able to participate in the ceremony.

Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Future Uncertain for Students Caught in Palos Verdes High Grade Scandal

Future Uncertain for Students Caught in Palos Verdes High Grade Scandal

Feb. 3, 2012


Teachers and administrators at Palos Verdes High School were aware of the rumors swirling through the halls: a group of students were selling test answers to their peers.

But the breakthrough came when a teacher noticed that a normally strong student bombed a final, getting just a quarter of the answers correct.

Closer examination revealed that the answers the student bubbled in were an exact match for an exam that had been administered the prior year. The student had obtained the answers, and erroneously assumed that the teacher would use the same test two years in a row.

A police investigation then led to last week’s arrest of three 16-year-old boys accused of breaking into the school, hacking into their teachers’ computers and changing their grades. A little more than a week after the arrest, new details are emerging.

The case – along with a developing story in Torrance that is strikingly similar – is a sign of the times, underscoring the impressive level of technical prowess possessed by some of today’s teenagers, and how the knowledge they have can be used for ill.

It also raises interesting questions about the college prospects for students smart enough to hack into computers but dishonest enough to use that knowledge for the purpose of cheating.

The three juniors at Palos Verdes High all had GPAs at or above the 4.0 mark – although that was before they were docked for allegedly cheating.

“These kids had very bright futures,” P.V. High Principal Nick Stephany said. “At this point, who knows what’s going to happen.”

Authorities say the crime began with an old-fashioned break-in: The three boys allegedly picked the lock to a janitors’ office late at night when school was closed. They pocketed a master key, sneaked into classrooms, snatched hard copies of tests from teachers’ drawers and tampered with the computers, authorities say.

Police say the students later sold the tests and their answers to their peers for $50 apiece and offered to change grades for $300. It appears they had about eight or nine takers.

Now the three students soon could earn a dubious distinction: becoming the first high school students expelled from the school – and indeed the entire district – in years. Stephany is recommending expulsion for all three, and their first administrative hearing on the matter is scheduled for next week.

In the past three years, only one student has been expelled from the high-performing Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District: a middle schooler who brandished a knife on a school bus, Stephany said.

Stephany speculated that the crime may have closed a few collegiate doors for the students. But it isn’t clear how badly this will mess up their chances at getting into good schools.

Officials at UCLA were vague on whether getting expelled hurts an otherwise strong student’s chances of getting accepted. For instance, UCLA admissions applications do not ask students whether they’ve been expelled, said UCLA spokesman Ricardo Vazquez.

However: “If the expulsion is noted in the student’s final transcript, admission officers may look into the reasons for the expulsion, even if the student has already been admitted. They also have flexibility in terms of what, if anything, they would do in these situations.”

Vazquez added that the university rarely sees cases in which a student has been expelled.

In any event, the students not only have an academic problem. Now they each face being charged with two felonies, one for burglary and one for the computer crimes, Palos Verdes Estates police Sgt. Steve Barber said.

“I’ve been working at (the Palos Verdes Estates department) for 16 years and I have never seen anything like this – it was a pretty intense case,” he said. “It was pretty incredible what they had accomplished before they got caught.”

To be sure, if the students are convicted, their records would be cleared once they turn 18, Barber said. (Crimes usually need to be violent to stick on a minor’s record.)

But the students – whose next trial date is set for April – are sure to find themselves saddled with the stress of navigating the juvenile justice system at a time when they are trying to get their academic lives back in order.

The issue surfaced about a month ago in the form of vague hallway chatter, Stephany said. Mindful of the rumors, teachers checked their grade books and noticed discrepancies.

Police and school officials later found easy-to-miss devices attached to USB ports on the computers. These were “keyloggers,” or spy software that makes a record of everything a person types on a computer, thereby enabling the students to obtain information such as the teachers’ passwords.

Barber said the students failed to realize a key detail: Many teachers at Palos Verdes High also keep written accounts of grades – a practice he recommends for all schools.

“So when the teachers are noticing discrepancies online, the red flags start to go up,” he said.

Stephany said although the alleged culprits were good students, they tended to keep to themselves.

“They really weren’t involved with a whole lot of athletics or extracurricular activities,” he said, adding that while he knows most of his students by name, he only knew one of the three alleged culprits, and only vaguely. “There were some minor discipline issues in the past, but nothing major – nothing like this.”

As for the nine students who received tests or had their grades altered, most if not all were suspended. Stephany said seven of those students came forward voluntarily, after learning that the consequences would be far less dire for them if they did so.

He said his ultimate goal is to do what it takes to maintain the academic integrity of the school.

“I’m concerned about doing what’s right and letting the cards fall where they will,” he said.

Follow Rob Kuznia on Twitter at

Accountability Featured Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

School superintendent amassed $663,000 in compensation

Centinela Valley schools chief amassed $663,000 in compensation in 2013

This was the first in a series of stories on the big-money politics of a high-poverty, low-performing school district in Los Angeles County. The series won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. To view a landing page with links to the entire series and infographics, click here.

Originally published on Feb. 8, 2014


The superintendent of the Centinela Valley high school district negotiated a contract so loaded with out-of-the-ordinary perks that he managed to amass more than $663,000 in total compensation last year.

Documents obtained by the Daily Breeze from the Los Angeles County Office of Education show that although Jose Fernandez had a base pay of $271,000 in the 2013 calendar year, his other benefits amounted to nearly $400,000.

On top of that, the district just over a year ago provided Fernandez with a $910,000 loan at 2 percent interest to buy a house in affluent Ladera Heights.

Though Centinela is made up of just three comprehensive high schools and a continuation school in Hawthorne and Lawndale, Fernandez’s payout in 2013 more than doubled that of his peers in larger neighboring South Bay districts.

His total compensation even eclipsed that of John Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system. Deasy’s base salary is $330,000 this school year and his gross compensation is just shy of $390,000, according to the LAUSD. But the district enrolls more than 650,000 students while Centinela Valley serves about 6,600.

“That’s obscene,” said Sandra Goins, executive director of South Bay United Teachers, the umbrella union for teachers in the Centinela Valley, Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and Palos Verdes Peninsula school districts. “That places him above the president of the United States — the leader of the free world.”

(The overall compensation package for President Barack Obama — salary, benefits, plus other perks — amounts to $569,000 annually.)

Fernandez, 54, was hired in January 2008 to take over a district suffering from lagging student test scores as it teetered on the brink of financial ruin. He had worked in the district since 1999, serving as an assistant superintendent of business and executive director of its adult school.

A former Inglewood city councilman, he took the top job at Centinela Valley during a tumultuous time. His predecessor, Cheryl White, had just been fired, and the district was fiscally insolvent. Fernandez was viewed as a money-minded leader.

After serving nearly a year as the interim superintendent, Fernandez was promoted to permanent status in late 2008 on a narrow 3-2 vote. With the new title came a 19-month contract with a base salary of about $163,000, plus allowances.

As Fernandez moved to shake up the district and steer it back toward financial stability, school board members rewarded him with a generous contract in 2009. Though his base pay increased only slightly to $198,000, a careful read of the deal reveals some striking fringe benefits:

• An annual raise of 9 percent.

• A relatively short work year of 215 days, compared to as many as 245 days worked by superintendents of other school districts.

• The right to be paid for days worked beyond the contracted work year of 215 days.

• A clause allowing him to be reimbursed by the district for purchasing “air time,” or up to five years of service to add to the number of years he actually worked, so as to boost his lifetime pension.

• A stipulation that he can only be fired by a supermajority of the board (four of five members).

• The ability to cash out vacation pay.

• An option to take a low-interest loan from the school district to purchase a home.

Fernandez exercised the loan option a little more than a year ago, using it to buy the two-story, four-bedroom home in Ladera Heights, one of the more expensive ZIP codes in Los Angeles County. He has 40 years to pay it off, at an interest rate of just 2 percent.

“That’s a super good deal,” according to Steve Murillo, owner of First Manhattan Mortgage and Realtors in Manhattan Beach. Murillo noted that the vast majority of home loans must be paid off in 30 years; interest rates in the current market now hover in the low- to mid-4 percent range.

“It’s like they are giving him free money,” he added.

The revelations about Fernandez’s compensation package come at a time when State Controller John Chiang is calling for more transparency among California school districts about superintendent salaries. Last week, he began asking every public school district for compensation documents, so they can be posted on his website at

Chiang has been putting together a user-friendly database listing the salary and benefits of California public employees ever since the scandal in the tiny city of Bell, where city leaders hid their exorbitant pay packages from the public. City Manager Robert Rizzo was collecting a salary of nearly $800,000, part of an annual compensation package worth $1.5 million.

Rizzo, the former assistant city manager and six other Bell officials have been convicted of corruption charges. He is currently serving 10 to 12 years in prison.

“After the city of Bell demonstrated how the absence of transparency and accountability can breed fiscal mismanagement, my office endeavored to create a one-stop resource detailing compensation data for every public official and employee,” Chiang wrote in a letter sent to every public school district on Monday.

Fernandez declined to be interviewed for this story, saying, through a spokesman, that he was loath to have to defend earning what he is legally entitled to by contract.

But his supporters point out that he has brought big improvements to a district that, prior to his arrival in 2008, was on the verge of bankruptcy, not to mention a state takeover.

“We were one payroll away from being taken over,” said Bob Cox, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources. “This really was a scary place.”

Under Fernandez’s tenure, test scores in the largely low-income district — once among the lowest in the county — have risen, especially at two struggling high schools, Hawthorne and Leuzinger. (They’ve dipped at Lawndale High.) Also, major facility upgrades are either underway or finished at all three campuses, thanks to a pair of voter-approved bonds netting nearly $100 million each.

In addition, Fernandez played a key role in the November 2012 passage of a parcel tax that will bolster the district’s general-fund revenues of about $50 million by $4.6 million for each of the next dozen years.

“He’s a great leader,” said board President Maritza Molina, a 2004 alumnus of Lawndale High who was elected to the board in 2009, just months after graduating with her bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Barbara. “He is very transparent with the board.”

The school board has been so pleased with Fernandez’s leadership that it unanimously extended his lucrative contract for another four years in 2012.

Pressed about specifics in the contract, Molina instructed a reporter to discuss details with Michael Simidjian, an attorney working for the district on a contract basis.

The Daily Breeze also called the three other board members who voted for Fernandez’s 2009 contract. Two of them — Rocio Pizano and Hugo Rojas — did not return calls. The third, Gloria Ramos, returned the call but declined to comment.

Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, said it isn’t illegal for a school superintendent — or any government official — to earn a high salary.

“Public officials can make high salaries if an elected board approves it in an open meeting,” she said.

Julie White, a consultant with the Association of California School Administrators, said she hasn’t come across so hefty a pay package in California. “That’s a large amount of money,” she said.

But she said it isn’t necessarily unusual for superintendent contracts to include housing assistance. That said, housing perks often raise eyebrows in the K-12 realm. In 2008, then-LAUSD Superintendent David Brewer drew fire for his $3,000-a-month housing stipend, part of a compensation package that totaled $381,000.

It isn’t entirely clear how Fernandez’s 2013 total payout breaks down. Some lucrative perks in his contract would be difficult for a layperson to spot. For example, one clause reads: “The District shall pay the employee portion of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) contribution and shall Compensate Superintendent for any service credit purchased.”

Though it sounds innocuous, that clause fattened his 2013 compensation by a six-figure sum that exceeds the entire annual salaries of many superintendents. About $215,000 of that came from the district’s one-time reimbursement to him for purchasing the service credit known as “air time,” said Simidjian, who works for the firm Dannis Wolliver Kelley.

Although air-time benefits vanished on Jan. 1, 2013, as a result of statewide pension reform, officials in Centinela Valley say Fernandez purchased his years out of pocket before then, and was reimbursed by the school district during the 2013 calendar year.

Another roughly $20,000 came from how the district covers Fernandez’s annual contribution to the state’s retirement system.

One obscure benefit pertains to the 215-day work year, which payroll experts say is short. It is more common to work 225; Deasy’s LAUSD work year spans 249 days.

“Two hundred and 15 days means that he doesn’t have to work nine weeks,” said a retired member of the California Association of School Business Officials, who is highly regarded as an expert on legal school payroll matters but asked that his name not be used. “If you get a full annual salary, and there’s nine weeks a year that you don’t have to work, you certainly don’t need to take 30 days of vacation.”

The short work year essentially encourages Fernandez to cash in much or all of his vacation time at the end of the year. His contract gives him 30 days of vacation annually.

In 2013, Fernandez did this to the tune of about $25,000, Simidjian said.

The short work year also increases his daily rate of pay. This affects yet another arcane-but-important provision in Centinela: The right for the superintendent to be paid for days worked beyond the contracted work year. In 2013, this contract provision beefed up Fernandez’s bottom line by about $50,000, Simidjian said.

Even if some of these expenses are one-time payments, Fernandez’s gross compensation has risen year after year since 2010, when it was $286,290. That amount ballooned to $392,000 in 2011, then to $403,000 in 2012 and $663,000 last year, according to county Office of Education, which calculates pay and compensation in calendar rather than fiscal years. In 2014, Fernandez’s total compensation is expected to return to the $400,000s.

Meanwhile, teachers in the Centinela Valley Union High School District, which serves communities where the median household income ranges from $33,000 to $49,000, have received two raises since 2006-07 — one for 1.75 percent in 2011, and the second for 1 percent at the beginning of this school year.

Jack Foreman, the Centinela Valley teachers union president, said the pay range for teachers in the district hovers around the county average, but the benefits package is among the least generous in the county.

“It really makes me feel sick,” he said of Fernandez’s compensation. “I think the message is that the district doesn’t put a very high value on its teachers.”

In an effort to make a fair comparison, the Daily Breeze obtained the same W-2 documents from the county for the superintendents of the Torrance, Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes Peninsula unified school districts. Total 2013 compensation amounted to $257,804 for George Mannon of Torrance Unified, $251,032 for Steven Keller of Redondo Beach Unified and $227,229 for Walker Williams of Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified.

As for Fernandez’s compensation package, the retired school finance expert, who helped the Daily Breeze deconstruct the contract, said he has never come across a deal like this during his 29 years in the business.

“I’m just appalled — it’s horrible,” he said. “It’s such a rip-off. There are some similarities to Bell, you might say. And the problem is, since most of it is legal, who can do anything about it?”

Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Centinela Valley superintendent secured $750K life insurance policy before school board approval, documents show

Centinela Valley superintendent secured $750K life insurance policy before school board approval, documents show

April 17, 2014

The embattled superintendent of the Centinela Valley school district — who is under investigation for his massive pay — took out a $750,000 life insurance policy before securing approval from the school board to do so, the Daily Breeze has learned.

That life insurance policy was in addition to a $1 million policy that Jose Fernandez had already taken out. Both were whole-life plans, meaning the premiums paid by the district can be cashed out, like the balance of a bank account.

For 54-year-old Fernandez, whose total compensation of more than $663,000 in 2013 made him one of the highest-paid public school superintendents in the nation, those policies grant him access to even more income, should he choose to surrender the policies and take the cash.

Fernandez today could surrender the larger policy for $154,770 in cash, and the smaller policy for about $83,000, said Rob Damico, an insurance expert who came to this conclusion based on charts in the policies that were obtained by the Daily Breeze.

After giving the school district the 20 percent share of any payout to which it is entitled by contract, Fernandez could cash out both policies and take home about $190,000.

“That’s a nice little bonus he’s getting,” said Damico, a State Farm insurance agent in Signal Hill. “I wish I had been the one that sold this policy. The commission would have been really nice on this thing.”

School experts say it is rare for school administrators to get whole-life insurance policies from their employers. Most public school administrators — and most employees in general — have term-life policies that offer a payout to a beneficiary only in the event of death.

Whole-life policies, on the other hand, double as savings accounts, yielding modest annual returns to the tune of about 2 to 3 percent, Damico said.

Naj Alikhan, communications director for the Association of California School Administrators, said most professionals inside and outside of education have a compensation package that includes some sort of life insurance policy.

“Those policies could come in various forms, from term-life to accidental death and dismemberment to any other configuration,” he said in an email to the Daily Breeze. “Whole life policies are rare in all lines of work.”

But Ken Shelton, the former chief business officer of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said it isn’t unheard of for administrators to get whole-life policies.

“It happens, but I don’t know the frequency,” he said. “It’s not totally unreasonable.”

In any case, whole-life policies are expensive. The Centinela Valley school district, which oversees three comprehensive high schools in Hawthorne and Lawndale, has been paying New York Life about $56,000 a year in premiums for the $1 million policy, and about $41,000 a year for the $750,000 policy. That adds up to about $97,000 a year, all for premiums.

The $1 million policy was among the many perks enshrined in Fernandez’s employment contract, approved by the school board in December 2009. Documents show Fernandez initiated the policy the next month, securing a plan from New York Life.

Nearly a year later, on Oct. 28, 2010, Fernandez took out a second policy from New York Life, according to documents obtained by the Daily Breeze. The date of issue on that $750,000 policy was Nov. 8, 2010.

However, it wasn’t until the following month, on Dec. 14 of that year, that the Centinela Valley school board approved the second whole-life policy for Fernandez among a batch of revised board polices and administrative regulations. The milieu also included $300,000 whole-life policies for Assistant Superintendents Bob Cox and Ron Hacker, as well as $150,000 term-life policies for all managerial employees, including the school board.

The school board vote wasn’t unanimous.

Voting against it was one board member, Sandra Suarez, who by then had become a lone-wolf dissenter on a board whose core three members were in lock step. (Gloria Ramos abstained on that item.)

Suarez said she wasn’t even aware of the life insurance issue at the time. Instead, she objected to a pattern she was noticing: district officials, she said, would make decisions first, and then seek board approval later. District officials often would try to rectify such matters by making the votes retroactive to an earlier date. Fernandez’s whole-life insurance policy, for example, was made retroactive to the beginning of the school year.

“Certain things he might have wanted done, they did ahead of time,” she said. “It tells us something: The board was not making the decisions; he was making the decisions.”

Reached on his cellphone Thursday, Fernandez declined to comment. The Daily Breeze also emailed detailed questions to Fernandez’s attorney, Spencer Covert. Aside from a follow-up question sent by Covert’s secretary, the office had not responded by Thursday evening.

Fernandez’s compensation package is currently being reviewed by several agencies, including the FBI, the Los Angeles County Office of Education and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. What’s more, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System also is investigating the matter.

Cox, a longtime administrator in Centinela Valley who is serving as interim superintendent during the multiple probes into Fernandez’s compensation, did not dispute that it appears Fernandez took out the insurance policy before the board approved it.

“This was a district that was driven by one person,” he said. “Now, board members and even senior administrators are trying to come out from under that and to figure out how to do the right thing. That’s what’s going to happen here, and it’s going to be painful for a while, but we’re going to have to show that it’s not business as usual.”

It’s unclear whether that sequence of events amounted to a breach of state education law. Officials from two agencies — the District Attorney’s Office and the county Office of Education — declined to weigh in. Both agencies are refraining from making any further comments until completion of their probes.

Teachers union President Jack Foreman has long sounded the alarm on the policies, saying they are hidden income for Fernandez.

“It’s a gift of cash, but it masquerades,” he said. “The reason it builds cash value is you’re paying a fortune in premiums.”

Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Lennox school board election a referendum on year of turmoil

Lennox school board election a referendum on year of turmoil

Voter turnout for the recent race to fill three seats on the Lennox school board might have been low, but the election results were pointed — and the ramifications are significant.

In a single night, voters issued a referendum on a year of extreme turmoil in the tiny, low-income K-8 district tucked in the shadow of the Los Angeles International Airport. The Lennox electorate effectively fired the two incumbents — Marisol Cruz and Sonia Saldana — who were part of the three-member majority that brought about much controversial change.

Over the course of the last year in Lennox, a narrow majority of the board has ushered in a polarizing superintendent, received a reprimand by the county’s district attorney for holding illegal secret meetings, presided over an organization that has been riven by politics and denied the request of the community’s prized charter high school — Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy — to break away from the district.

Now, the new board makeup — which takes effect next month — raises intriguing questions about the fate of that superintendent, Barbara Flores, who has been on medical leave since late August.

The new power base also raises the possibility of a do-over in the secession effort of the Lennox Academy, whose teachers and students are said to have campaigned vigorously against the two fallen incumbents.

In addition to ousting Cruz and Saldana, voters on Nov. 5 also re-elected an incumbent who was often on the losing end of those majority votes. Juan Navarro has been a soft-spoken but steady critic of the district’s recent direction.

“The voters spoke up,” he said. “Not only the voters, but our youth.”

Also, in a telling indication of the power conferred upon parents by the parent-trigger law pioneered by California in 2010, Lennox voters picked Shannon Thomas Allen for the school board. She is a leader of a grass-roots parent group in Lennox that came about largely as a result of that law, which enables a majority of a school’s parents to replace the leadership.

But the strangest outcome of Election Day was who finished in first place. Sergio Hernandez Jr., who billed himself with the County Recorder’s Office as a teacher and school administrator, breezed to victory, even though nobody seems to know who he is.

During the campaign, Hernandez did not show up for several forums and campaign events. Neither of the other winners has met him. He also did not return multiple calls from the Daily Breeze.

And yet Hernandez took 21.7 percent of the vote. The first runner up, Allen, garnered 18.1 percent; Navarro, the incumbent, collected 17.1 percent.

Despite Hernandez’s low profile, his opinion about the hot topics of the day in Lennox suddenly matter. For instance, with one member of that old board majority — Mercedes Ibarra — in the middle of her term, Hernandez could wind up the swing vote on some weighty issues.

For now, the most pressing question is what becomes of Flores, who seems to have been hanging onto power by a thread.

The 2012-13 school year began with the hiring of Flores, largely at the urging of Cruz. Flores had been a longtime professor of education at Cal State San Bernardino and a trustee on the San Bernardino City Unified school board — to which she was just re-elected last Tuesday. But she’d never been a school administrator.

The first public controversy erupted about a year ago, when Flores sent out a mass internal email that all but accused Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Services Brian Johnson — a 35-year Lennox school district employee — of mismanaging public funds. He was later quietly cleared by a district-hired auditor of any wrongdoing.

The backlash from that move was furious.

Flores’ detractors accused her of hiring friends to serve as consultants, fostering an inappropriately cozy relationship with the district’s employee unions, spending large amounts of public money on attorneys and over-compensating for her inexperience by taking vindictive measures against subordinates. They sent a letter detailing these and other allegations to the Public Integrity Division of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

For a time, Flores could count on the backing of her three supporters on the five-member board. But she eventually had a falling out with two of them — Cruz and Ibarra. Now, Cruz and Saldana have been voted out of office. This means all three of Flores’ original supporters have either been ousted or — in the case of Ibarra — are no longer on the best of terms with her.

However, Allen — the parent volunteer — last year was a Flores supporter from the sidelines. Asked last week to share her thoughts on Flores, Allen said, “I would love to see her back (from medical leave) and engaging with the board — not only the board, but with the community.”

Navarro was more direct about his position on Flores.

“I’m not happy with her performance,” he said. “I’m looking forward to working with a new superintendent who’s not going to target our employees, who’s not going to have any personal agendas and vendettas against anyone, and who’s going to look for the overall well being of all students in the school district. Not just a few.”

Allen and Navarro favor allowing the academy to become an independent charter, meaning the Lennox school board and administration would lose virtually all authority over the high school.

Last month, the board rejected the academy’s bid for independence in a 3-2 vote. Now, a board majority apparently favors the bid.

Allen has been an organizer with a group that calls itself the parents union. The Lennox parents received training from a regional organization called Parent Revolution, which formed to lobby for the parent trigger law. Back in 2012, the Lennox group, with Allen as a member, demanded changes at Lennox Middle School, where they felt that instruction for English learners wasn’t strong enough. The school now has new leadership.

“I know there is a big controversy about the parent trigger law,” she said. “We never wanted to trigger our middle school. We took the trigger law and used it as leverage so we could get what we wanted for English language learners.”

On her election to the board, the mother of six said she still can’t believe her good fortune. But what she lacked in union endorsements and campaign contributions, Allen made up for in door-to-door canvassing.

“I so appreciate the community of Lennox for listening to me,” she said, “and for saying, ‘We’ll give you a chance.’”

Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Torrance political slate mailer using ‘P.T.A.’ acronym infuriates the real PTA

Torrance political slate mailer using ‘P.T.A.’ acronym infuriates the real PTA


The campaign literature looks innocent enough: a glossy mailer from a Torrance organization called the P.T.A. Voters Guide — complete with decorative apples — that endorses about a dozen South Bay candidates in various races for the Nov. 5 election.

But the slate mailer has stoked the fury of the PTA that everybody knows — that is, the one that raises money for schools with bake sales and school carnivals.

The reason? The P.T.A. does not equal the PTA. The former is an organization called the “Parent Teacher Action” Voter Guide, an organization that to date exists solely to endorse the candidates who paid for a spot on the mailer.

The latter acronym stands for the Parent Teacher Association. By law and by design, this well-oiled, 105-year-old organization — whose logo is trademarked — does not endorse candidates for office.

Last week, as the glossy ad landed in the mailboxes of South Bay residents, irked local PTA affiliates wasted little time in sending their complaint up the flagpole to statewide headquarters in Sacramento. The statewide chapter, in turn, promptly relayed the complaint to the organization’s legal team at the national level.

“The PTA has great credibility because we are nonpartisan and nonsectarian, and so it’s very important to us to maintain that nonpartisanship,” said Colleen You, president of the California State PTA. “In this particular case, I think the group or the individuals circulating the mailer are trading on the credibility and reputation of the PTA.”

Michele Nadeau, a parent volunteer at South High in Torrance, was less diplomatic.

“I think it’s horrible,” said Nadeau, who was careful to mention that she was speaking as a parent, not a PTA representative. “It’s a direct attempt to mislead the voters. They’re vying to represent us yet they are hoping we are uninformed. It’s insulting. I think it’s disturbing that we have candidates resorting to these tactics — deliberately trying to deceive us.”

Slate mailers often take liberties in an effort to provide a certain snapshot portrayal of what they stand for. But this dustup raises questions about how far they can go before crossing an ethical or even legal line.

The creator of the mailer is Liberty Campaign Solutions, a political consulting company run by Patrick Furey.

A representative of the company who declined to give his name said the group is well within its legal right to use the acronym.

“We have never given any false claim to being affiliated with that organization,” he said, pointing out that the literature includes a disclaimer, on the bottom of the back page, stating that the group is not affiliated with the “National PTA nor any Parent Teacher Association.”

By way of comparison, he cited the well-known California slate mailer “COPS Voter Guide.”

“The people who put it out are not law enforcement in any way whatsoever,” he said. “However, I am sure that they support safe neighborhoods and protecting families. That’s their thing. That’s what they are advocating for.”

Likewise, he said, the P.T.A. Voter Guide is advocating for quality education and safe schools.

“When we speak to candidates, we ask them, ‘Do you support safe schools and quality education?’ ” he said. “It is a pledge.”

Among the candidates who took this pledge is Sergio Mortara, the only one of five contestants for the Hawthorne school board whose name and bio is on the mailer. Mortara, who has never run for political office, said he was taken aback by how, just days after he filed his campaign papers, he was flooded with solicitations from slate mailers and consultants.

Of the seven or eight mailers that came his way, the P.T.A. slate seemed like the best fit.

“The other ones were either Republican or Democrat,” he said. Asked if he thought it is misleading to use the P.T.A. acronym, he said, “It never dawned on me, the similarities, to be honest.”

Also on the mailer is John Paul Tabakian, who is running for a seat on the Torrance school board. Tabakian says he did not pay to be on the mailer. Instead, his spot was purchased by some other organization or individual that supports him.

“I don’t know who did,” said the political science instructor at Los Angeles Mission College and L.A. Trade Tech, who is supported by an alliance that includes unions and Republican groups alike. “The way I see it, I cannot refuse to be on the slate.”

Tabakian likes to say that he is a professor, not a politician, and he views the situation with a degree of detachment. In fact, he used the slate mailer as a discussion piece in one of his classes.

“One of my students said, ‘I think that is misleading,’ ” he said. “I said, ‘In politics, perception is everything.’ ”

One Torrance school board candidate who is not on the mailer is Michael Wermers, currently the board president. Liberty Campaign Solutions repeatedly solicited him to purchase an ad. (The participation cost reportedly varies according to the race, but one source said Liberty asked for $1,000.)

“It seemed like a capitalization of the PTA’s logo,” Wermers said. “That’s what turned me off.”

Terry Ragins, a Torrance school board member with a long history of PTA involvement, said one galling aspect of the mailer is that some of the candidates, in her opinion, are definitely not friends of schools. In particular, she was referring to Rick Marshall, a candidate for the El Camino College board, who in the past has been criticized — by school people and judges alike — for filing frivolous lawsuits against Torrance Unified.

But she expressed surprise that the mailer includes an ad for Torrance school board member Mark Steffen, whose bid for re-election she has endorsed.

“I’m guessing he was not clear about what he was getting into,” she said of Steffen, who couldn’t be reached for comment.

Ragins is also puzzled by the mailer’s inclusion of an advertisement for the Torrance mayoral candidacy of Pat Furey, father of Patrick. That election won’t happen until June 2014.

“He has been a huge friend of the PTA,” she said of the elder Furey, noting how the Torrance City Council member is working with the organization to find more foster parents in Torrance. “He’s a friend of mine, and I’ve always felt like he’s an honorable person. That’s why I’m withholding judgment.”

Furey also couldn’t be reached for comment.

As for the slate mailer, the blow-back from the PTA has been enough to persuade Liberty Campaign Solutions to begin the process of changing the P.T.A. logo.

“We have our graphic artist working on it,” the representative said, adding that the new logo will be ready by the next cycle of elections in 2014. “We don’t want to piss off the PTA. That’s not our goal.”

Accountability Oakland Tribune / Argus

Argus Investigation: Embattled Former CEO has Left Several Positions Under Pressure

Copley Has History of Turmoil

Embattled Former CEO has Left Several Positions Under Pressure

By Rob Kuznia and Rob Dennis

NEWARK — John Copley was convincing. He had the vision and the experience that seemingly made him an excellent choice to lead the chamber of commerce.

But the man who was arrested Friday on suspicion of embezzlement also had a past that the Newark chamber didn’t know about.

Copley — who resigned as the president and CEO of the cash-drained North Silicon Valley Newark chamber under increasing pressure from its members — left at least three previous leadership positions under cloudy circumstances during the past 12 years, sources told The Argus. He also changed his name at least once, according to Social Security records.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the man the Newark business community knew as Copley was working under the name of John Rodgers and was a volunteer minister at a Sacramento-area church, former associates said. He later worked as chairman of the Democratic Party of Sacramento County and executive director of the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce, they said.

All of those jobs appear to have ended in turmoil, according to sources and news articles, although some of the same people also said Copley was a hard worker and an able organizer.

Before the Newark chamber hired Copley in March 2000, chamber officials conducted a reference check that turned up nothing questionable, they said. But the chamber did not conduct a background check because it was not standard practice at the time, said the Rev. Ed Moore, a chamber board member who served on the hiring committee at the time.

In October, police began investigating the finances of the chamber.

Copley, two days before he resigned, said he did nothing illegal.

“If I was doing something wrong or illegal with all this coming up, I would have been out of here and gone,” he said.

Copley, 39, who has been working for two months at the Billy DeFrank Lesbian and Gay Community Center in San Jose, refused to answer questions for this story.

“I will respond to those questions in the appropriate manner in the appropriate time,” he said in a telephone message left at The Argus at 1:44 a.m. the day after a reporter tried to talk with him at his San Jose office.

A background investigation by The Argus turned up several instances in which Copley left leadership roles amid controversy, although he never was accused of breaking any laws.

In 1990, a month after a bimonthly newspaper published a story stating that he commonly and falsely claimed to be an ordained minister, Copley — then John Rodgers — resigned as co-chairman of Sacramento’s Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. The newspaper, Mom Guess What!, has been focusing on gay and lesbian issues since its inception in 1978.

Rodgers, according to the article, had served as a volunteer minister at Metropolitan Community Church, a Protestant church for gays and lesbians in the Sacramento area. But he stepped down in 1989 after his credentials were investigated by a church official, the Rev. Ed Sherriff, who determined Rodgers had not been ordained.

Sherriff, who died in 1999, determined that Rodgers was not an ordained Methodist minister and did not have the credentials he claimed, said the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Elder Freda Smith.

“He was very convincing,” Smith said of Rodgers. “He certainly knew quite a bit about churches.”

Then-GLAAD member Mary Smith told Mom Guess What! in the 1990 article, “It never occurred to me to question that he (Rodgers) wasn’t a real minister — he was always wearing that collar.”

After leaving the GLAAD job, Rodgers moved into the political sphere, becoming heavily involved with the Democratic Party of Sacramento County.

Robert Jordan, a party employee, said he met Rodgers at another Sacramento gay and lesbian organization in late 1989.

“He kind of disappeared for a while after those articles came out,” said Jordan, adding he did not see Rodgers again until 1993 or early 1994.

“He was a member of a young Democrats club,” Jordan said. “He said his name was Copley, but I recognized him from before.”

Rodgers had changed his last name to Copley in the early 1990s.

Copley established himself as a talented activist for the party, sources said. In 1997, after managing the campaign headquarters, Copley became
chairman of the county party, a volunteer position in which he performed well, sources said.

“This guy was clearly a hard worker,” said Bruce Pomer, who succeeded Copley as chairman. “I thought him to be a very competent chair who ran a very tight ship.”

Copley, however, left the party on bad terms, and money was the source of the problem, said Virginia Moose, who has served as the party’s treasurer for 17 years.

At issue was about $4,800 Copley used to buy fliers and postcards to advertise candidates the party endorsed, according to bills obtained by The Argus.

Because Copley told Moose the mailers were an in-kind contribution, “we sent out many more mailers than we could afford,” she said.

The party later received an overdue bill from Allied Printing Co. for about $4,800, and a call from an accountant at the shop, Moose said.

“Allied Printing had been told I was out of town and that’s why the bill wasn’t paid,” Moose said. “That was not true.”

Moose never took any formal action.

“It didn’t occur to me to sue him (Copley),” she said. “I just wanted him to get out of here.”

At the time, Copley also was serving as a campaign manager for his roommate, Sam Ciraulo, who was running for the Los Rios Community College Board of Trustees, she said. The pair shared a home in North Sacramento, records show.

Ciraulo, who wound up losing the Los Rios bid, moved to Fremont in August and again was Copley’s roommate. He ran unsuccessfully in November for a seat on the Ohlone College board of trustees.

In Sacramento, Moose and Jordan both said Copley was criticized for allocating more resources to Ciraulo’s race than to those of other candidates.

And the party, whose two-year budget was about $22,000, ended up $5,000 in debt, Moose said.

Moose said she told Copley that if he ran for chair again, she would go public with her suspicions. She said Copley declined a nomination to run
again for chairman in January 1999.

Pomer, who succeeded Copley in the chair position, said while he had a good relationship with him at the Democratic Party, Copley left the office in disarray by taking all of the records.

“It seemed real traumatic at the time,” he said. “I didn’t have anything.”

While volunteering for the Democrats, Copley was working full time as an executive assistant for Roberts & Associates in Sacramento, a company that raises funds for politicians, spokeswoman Toni Roberts said.

“He did a really good job. I completely trusted him,” she said, adding that “John, at the time, really wanted to leave and take another job. He in
essence felt underemployed.”

In 1999, Copley was hired as executive director of the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce. But he left in January 2000 and “is not eligible for rehire,” said Laurel Brent-Bumb, who occupies the top paid spot — now called the chief executive officer.

Brent-Bumb would not say whether Copley was terminated, offering only that he did not resign.

“There was not a financial issue here,” she added.

In February 2000 — about a month after Copley left the El Dorado County chamber — he responded to a job posting for the top position at the Newark Chamber of Commerce, mem-ber Mike Donohue said.

At the time, the chamber had been without an executive director since August 1999, when Sandy Young resigned, and one person had turned down its job offer, Donohue said.

A chamber committee of about six members — whose primary goal was an increase in membership — quickly whittled the candidates to Copley and one other person, members say.

“He interviewed well,” Donohue said. “He had the answers we were looking for.”

Moore, another committee member, agreed.

“To the best of my knowledge, we all agreed he would be the best for the chamber.” Moore said. “There was no debate.”

The chamber did not conduct a background search and never had for past candidates, Moore said.

Helbush said she was not sure if the chamber still has Copley’s resume, and she would not provide any information it contains because it is a personnel matter, she said.

“It would be helpful to work with the benefit of hindsight, but we can only move into the future by learning from our mistakes,” Moore said.

Moore said the group checked more than three references listed on Copley’s resume. However, he said, he wishes the group had asked whether the organizations would have rehired Copley.

Shortly after the chamber hired him, Copley changed his title from executive director to president and chief executive officer. The bylaws were rewritten, listing the president/CEO — Copley — as the treasurer.

Under his leadership, the chamber started Newark’s first farmers market. Copley also did a stellar job as head organizer for the Newark Days Parade in September, members said. He tapped into his connections to line up Grand Marshal Mervyn Fernandez, a former Los Angeles Raiders standout.

Another Copley coup came in April, when chamber member Pat Danielson was named one of California’s six Small Business Advocates of 2002.

Copley also became involved with Ohlone College, serving as the fund-raising chairman for the committee supporting its March $150 million bond election. He served as chairman of Ohlone’s bond oversight committee until trustees removed him from the position following his resignation from the chamber.

And after some last-minute maneuvering, Copley wooed Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to town for a speech — although his appearance was uncertain until days before the April event.

But Copley also caused some strain among chamber members, beginning when he decided to change the name of the Tri-City area’s oldest chamber to the North Silicon Valley Newark Chamber of Commerce.

Although state law required the general membership to approve the name change, only the 18-member board of directors voted on it last year, former Chairwoman Helbush said.

But a document filed with the secretary of state in May 2001 indicated the general membership had approved the change. It was signed by both Copley and Sheri Flister, then the chamber president.

The name change — meant to increase membership — angered many members who said it undermined the city’s independent spirit. Membership numbers, meanwhile, remained steady — about 300 — chamber members say. On Jan. 15, chamber members voted to change the name back to the Newark Chamber of Commerce.

Other members were disappointed by the low turnout at the chamber’s business exposition and trade show in April 2002. Several demanded booth fee refunds.

But the discontent did not boil over until June 2002, when chamber members began sending mass e-mails containing concerns about various issues, including money, Copley’s title as treasurer and the name change.

Others were skeptical of his repeated claims that he was a member of the Copley newspaper family, which owns the San Diego Union-Tribune. A Union-Tribune official said John Copley is not part of the Copley family. Copley also falsely claimed that the family at one time owned The Argus.

The city, meanwhile, which had been donating about $50,000 to the chamber annually, grew wary of the organization’s financial state and withheld its 2002 donation, City Manager Al Huezo said. The city never pursued any records to verify its financial concerns, he added.

“You have to understand, for a time, some chamber members were leery of the city’s closeness (to the chamber),” Huezo said. “So we kind of purposefully took a step back.”

But times have changed.

On Jan. 16, the chamber accepted the city’s offer of up to $30,000, plus a year of free rent of a city-owned building — amounting to more than $25,000 — on several conditions, including the resignation of its six executive board members.

The city approved less money than in past years because of the ailing economy, Huezo said.

Now the beleaguered chamber is regrouping.

The two other employees were laid off in October. Helbush and others had been volunteering at the office, which shaved its weekly operating hours from 40 to 15.

The members on Jan. 15 also passed a new set of bylaws that created a separate treasurer position.

Most agree that things seem to be on the upswing. But Donohue, who apologized in a mass e-mail for helping to hire Copley, said the reorganization should have happened much sooner.

“We should have known, we should have known,” he said. “It took two years to figure it out.”