INGLEWOOD — School board member Caroline Coleman said Wednesday she believes that a felony count of misuse of public funds--filed against her Tuesday by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office--is "politically motivated."
Coleman, 47, seeking a third term in next week's school board race, is charged with submitting false expense claims for more than $1,500 and is to be arraigned today in Los Angeles Municipal Court. If convicted, she faces up to three years in prison and would be barred from holding public office.
Coleman, who has maintained her innocence throughout the eight-month investigation, said Wednesday she is surprised by the indictment and angry that the district attorney's office waited until seven days before the election to file the charge.
"It must be politically motivated," she said. "I have no idea why they waited this long. I really would have liked to have had the trial itself over by now, so that voters could go to the polls with all the information before them. Now, I think they're going to be very confused. The whole thing is just a waste of taxpayers' money."
Expenses for Conference
The felony charge stems from an accusation by school board President William (Tony) Draper in July that Coleman fabricated receipts for her plane fare, conference fees and other expenses for a November, 1983, educational conference in New Orleans. Conference officials said they had no record of Coleman attending--or even registering for--the conference.
In addition, Coleman was unable to produce the original receipt for plane fare that Draper said was about double what the school board would normally pay for a New Orleans flight. Saying that her purse containing the receipt had been stolen, Coleman last April submitted a flight verification letter on Delta Airlines stationery signed by "A. Brown" in the "Refunds and Reverifications Department." Delta officials later said they had no such employee and no such department and that none of the flights took the routes listed in the letter.
Draper, who called for Coleman's resignation in July, said he is "elated that the district attorney's office finally got around to doing what they should have done a long time ago. I'm hoping and praying that this will cause her not to be reelected. Maybe then we can get on with the business of running the school district."
Coleman's challengers in the upcoming race had varying opinions on how much the charge would hurt her.
'Will Hurt Deeply'
Opponent Karen Bonner Gill said Wednesday she thinks "this will hurt (Coleman) deeply. Voters have reason now to believe that a public trust has been violated. I think when they go to the polls, they should bear in mind whether the person they're voting for will be available to complete the term. Personally, I'm just glad to see that friends in high places don't stand in the way of some kind of justice."
Gill said she had been worried that "they were just going to let this ride until after the election."
Opponent Mildred McNair, however, said she doubts that the charge will do much damage to Coleman's reelection chances.
"Ethically, she should not have run with this cloud over her head, but I'm not sure that realistically it will hurt her that much. A lot of people just go by the sample ballots that are mailed to them and the literature they receive. I think it casts a shadow of doubt on the other people who have aligned themselves with her."
The 'Democratic Team'
Literature put out in recent weeks has promoted the "Inglewood Democratic Team," a slate endorsed by Mayor Edward Vincent consisting of Coleman, Ernest Shaw for school board Seat 2, James Cousar for school board Seat 3, District 1 Councilman Daniel K. Tabor and District 2 Councilman Anthony Scardenzan.
Scardenzan on Wednesday disassociated himself from the slate and Coleman. Reading a statement, campaign manager Ken Gossett said Scardenzan was running "an independent campaign" and objected to being associated with either the mayor's blanket endorsement of the slate or the slate members. Gossett said Scardenzan was not seeking endorsements from the school board or mayor and was not endorsing anyone.
School board member Ronni Cooper, also up for reelection, said she believes that other members of the slate will be hurt by their association with Coleman.
"If you're going to link things together, you have to take the good with the bad," she said. "I think those people (on the slate) should be scrutinized as well."
The felony charge also could cost Coleman her job as a deputy probation officer with the county.
Deputy Probation Director Hervle Lowrey said Coleman may face suspension until her trial is completed.
"If she has been charged with a felony, she cannot carry out her duties as a probation officer," he said. When the department receives the paper work from the district attorney, Lowrey said, his office probably will begin suspension proceedings.
Lowrey would not comment specifically on whether Coleman would be fired pending the outcome of her trial, noting only that "You can't be a probation officer if you're convicted of a felony."