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Jury in whistleblower suit awards more than $3 million to former administrators in California district

July 24, 2018
The former superintendent and former chief financial officer in the Montebello Unified District say they were fired for exposing corruption.

The Montebello (Calif.) Unified School District and another former administrator has been ordered to pay more than $3 million in damages to its former superintendent and another top administrator who contended they were fired in 2016 for exposing political corruption at the district.

The Whittier Daily News reports that a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury awarded former Superintendent Susanna Contreras Smith $2.7 million and former chief financial and operations officer Cleve Pell $567,665.

The two contended in a lawsuit that they were whistleblowers who lost their jobs after coming forward about alleged misconduct by the school board and Chief Business Officer Ruben J. Rojas.

The school district may appeal, says Robert Alaniz, district spokesman.

“The Montebello Unified School District is disappointed in today’s jury verdict in the case of a lawsuit filed by two former superintendents against the district,” he says.

The district maintains that its decision to part ways with the former administrators was lawful and performance-based because the district was on the verge of bankruptcy, its buildings were falling into disrepair and test scores were dropping, Alaniz says.

Smith and Pell brought the lawsuit in June 2017. The suit alleged that Rojas, who was in charge of the district’s $300 million budget, was steering "lucrative contracts to cronies in violation of public contracting laws.”

[Read the lawsuit (Greenberg Gross LLP)]

Rojas testified during the trial and denied any wrongdoing.

According to the lawsuit, Smith put Rojas on leave, and she and Pell brought their findings to the board, but those efforts were thwarted 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.”

Rojas was hired by the Montebello district at a time when the district had begun efforts to upgrade its aging school facilities. But the lawsuit contended that Rojas awarded many lucrative contracts to people favored by him, violating state laws in the process.

The suit also alleged that Rojas made misrepresentations and omissions about his past employment history when he applied for the Montebello job.

The district fired Rojas in March 2017.

Since the upheaval in leadership ranks in 2016, Montebello'd financial problems have become public. In November, the Los Angeles County Office of Education assigned a fiscal adviser to oversee the board’s decisions to help stave off insolvency. 

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