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Former Centinela Valley Superintendent Jose Fernandez arrested on public corruption charges

Source: Inside Thunderdome.

This material belongs to: Daily Breeze.

Three years after Jose Fernandez was fired from his position at the helm of the Centinela Valley Union High School District after revelations of excessive compensation, the disgraced former superintendent was arrested Wednesday on public corruption charges.

Fernandez, 57, was booked into county jail at 9:30 a.m., according to online records.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday filed 12 felony counts against Fernandez for alleged crimes from December 2009 to April 2014, including a single count of embezzlement by a public official, three counts of misappropriation of public funds, two counts of grand theft and six counts of conflict-of-interest that prohibit a public employee from being financially interested in any contract made in his or her official capacity.

He is being held on $495,000 bail and is due to be arraigned this morning in Torrance Superior Court.

Revelations launch probe

The district attorney’s office began investigating Fernandez in February 2014 after the Daily Breeze revealed he was collecting a salary of $663,000 leading the tiny school district serving students in Hawthorne and Lawndale. He also received excessive perks, including a home loan worth $910,000 with an interest rate of 2 percent, and a $750,000 life insurance policy obtained before the school board could approve it.

The series of investigative articles, which won the Breeze a Pulitzer Prize in 2015, also explored campaign donations from a construction firm that seemed to benefit from all the district’s construction projects. It also uncovered high spending on administrative pay and legal costs.

The revelations sparked public uproar from hundreds of parents who brought their frustrations to school board meetings and prompted a local state lawmaker to introduce a bill requiring greater transparency for superintendent salaries.

After an exhaustive third-party investigation, Fernandez was fired by the school board in July 2014.

He filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the district in April 2015 alleging breach of contract, defamation, retaliation and age discrimination.

Centinela Valley countersued a year later, alleging Fernandez fraudulently and unlawfully took money from the district and failed to disclose a personal bankruptcy.

The FBI also was reviewing the allegations at the time. Spokeswoman Laura Eimiller declined to comment Wednesday.

School board Vice President Hugo Rojas confirmed district officials learned of the arrest Wednesday afternoon but said they were advised by legal counsel not to discuss the case. The district was preparing a press release, he said.

Fernandez’s wife answered a call to her husband’s cellphone Wednesday, telling a reporter she had no comment before hanging up.

A prior attorney for Fernandez, Spencer Covert, said he is not representing him in the criminal case. An attorney for the school district did not immediately return a phone call.

If convicted, Fernandez faces up to 15 years in state prison.

Five-year period

According to a criminal complaint, the DA’s office began investigating Fernandez after it received a copy of a Daily Breeze article in February 2014 exposing his extraordinary salary and benefit compensation.

Subsequent interviews and reviews of records and documents showed that, over a five-year period, Fernandez routinely manipulated the school board and its policies to exorbitantly increase his pay and benefits, prosecutors allege.

“Fernandez’s frequent concealment from the board of material information largely prevented the board from discovering Fernandez’s crimes against the district,” the complaint states.

On one occasion in December 2010, Fernandez overwhelmed the school board with 3,000 revisions to bylaws and policies, burying provisions giving himself “extra days pay” and approving a $750,000 whole-life insurance policy he had already taken out for himself three months earlier, prosecutors allege.

He lied to school board members, saying the changes were all standard, according to the complaint.

The only record of the $910,000 home loan that went before school board members was a copy of a check to a Santa Monica escrow company “surreptitiously” included in several pages of financial records under a consent calendar of routine items, prosecutors allege.

In 2012, Fernandez bloated his salary and retirement benefits by making last-minute changes to a retirement plan, misrepresenting its cost to the board, the complaint alleges.

“In 2013, the defendant’s wages for purposes of the retirement plan totaled more than $750,000, nearly $500,000 more than the next highest paid employee in the school district,” the district attorney’s office said in a press release.

“He had it coming”

Jack Foreman, a former Centinela Valley teachers union president and outspoken critic of Fernandez’s contract, said he had compassion for the ex-superintendent’s family, “but he was obviously extremely corrupt.”

“In 2012, when we were in a crisis, he closed down our adult school, we had massive layoffs, we had some teachers that were never able to get on their feet again,” Foreman said. “I think everybody believed he had it coming, he was very corrupt. People were losing their jobs and their livelihoods, school programs were cut, and this guy was going on a spending binge for himself.”

Sandra Suarez, a former school board member who criticized Fernandez and was censured by her colleagues in 2011 for raising questions about district spending, said she was pleased by the news of the arrest.

“I’m just happy something’s being done,” she said. “I know there were a lot of people and mistreated employees I met while I was at the school district who had been waiting and waiting. This is justice for them.”