Consumer Fraud

Jury Sides With Whistleblowers in School Board Retaliation Case

School Buses 435x287 Jury Sides With Whistleblowers in School Board Retaliation CaseTwo whistleblowers who were allegedly fired from California’s Montebello Unified School District (MUSD) in East Los Angeles in retaliation for calling out “lies, fraud, and corruption” within the Board’s leadership have been awarded more than $3 million.

A Los Angeles Superior Court jury heard the whistleblower retaliation complaint, brought by Susanna Contreras Smith the ex-superintendent of the school district, and Cleve Pell, the district’s former operations officer, in June 2017.

The plaintiffs argued they were wrongfully fired for standing up to cronyism and other misconduct by then-Board of Education and Chief Business Officer Ruben J. Rojas.

Lawyers for the whistleblowers also successfully demonstrated that two Board of Education members, Lani Cupchoy and Benjamin Cardenas, acted with malice, oppression, or fraud against both plaintiffs. HMG-CN reports that sources say Board members will seek the immediate removal or resignation of Ms. Cupchoy and Mr. Cardenas.

Ms. Smith and Mr. Pell alleged that Mr. Rojas “was directing lucrative MUSD contracts to cronies in violation of public contracting laws,” NBC News Los Angeles reported, citing the whistleblower complaint. Mr. Rojas oversaw the district’s $300 million budget.

The MUSD hired Mr. Rojas at a time when the district had begun revamping its aged school facilities, NBC News Los Angeles reported. The whistleblowers alleged that it eventually became clear Mr. Rojas was “an individual who had crisscrossed California looking for school districts to exploit for his personal benefit.”

Within just a year of his hiring, Mr. Rojas had awarded several lucrative MUSD contracts to people he favored in violation of California’s Public Contract Code and other laws, the whistleblower complaint alleged.

The whistleblower lawsuit also accused Mr. Rojas of making misrepresentations and omissions about his past employment history when he applied for the MUSD job. He was fired in March 2017.

After Ms. Smith put Mr. Rojas on leave, she and Mr. Pell brought their findings to the board, but their efforts were sabotaged when the trustees “sought to cover up the web of corruption surrounding Rojas, engineered his return from leave by false pretenses and then voted to terminate Smith and Pell in retaliation for their whistleblowing.”

The board fired Ms. Smith and Mr. Pell in 2016 after putting them on leave for a month.

The jury awarded Ms. Smith $2.7 million in compensatory damages and Mr. Pell $567,000. California doesn’t allow a claim of punitive damages against a public entity.