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Inglewood School Board Race : Felony Charge Called 'Politically Motivated'

March 31, 1985|PATRICIA LOPEZ | Times Staff Writer

An otherwise humdrum municipal election in Inglewood has been enlivened by an 11th-hour felony charge brought against an incumbent school board member who says she is a victim of "political motivations."

School board member Caroline Coleman--whose campaign was clouded by the district attorney's eight-month investigation into her use of school district funds--was arraigned Thursday in Los Angeles Municipal Court, where she pleaded not guilty to one count of misuse of public funds. She will reappear in court April 18, when the date of her preliminary hearing will be set.

If convicted, the 47-year-old, two-term trustee faces up to three years in prison and would be barred from holding office.

Coleman, who has maintained her innocence throughout the investigation, said last week that she was "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."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 2, 1985 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 67 words Type of Material: Correction
A story published in The Times' South Bay section on March 25 incorrectly stated that James Cousar had been endorsed by Inglewood Mayor Edward Vincent for Inglewood School Board Seat 3 in today's election. Vincent is backing Wanda Brown in that contest. A story published Sunday in the South Bay and Westside sections incorrectly stated that Cousar had been endorsed by state Assemblyman Curtis R. Tucker (D-Inglewood). Tucker has endorsed incumbent Rose Mary Benjamin for Seat 3.

The felony charge stems from an accusation made 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. Officials from the conference later 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 had been stolen with the receipt in it, 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 that it 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 race for the seat that includes Ladera Heights had varying opinions, however, on just how much the charge would hurt the incumbent trustee.

Said opponent Karen Bonner Gill: "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 that 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."

Meanwhile, in the waning days before the election, the nine-person race has split into two neatly divided slates--one endorsed by the mayor and the other by Assemblyman Curtis R. Tucker (D-Inglewood)--with three candidates remaining unaffiliated.

The Committee for Quality Education, consisting mainly of the candidates, their spouses and a few key supporters, has raised $12,420 and split it evenly among Gill, who is challenging Coleman; incumbent Ronni Cooper, and James Cousar, who is running against incumbent Rose Mary Benjamin.

Although Tucker has endorsed Gill, Cooper and Cousar and promised to back Gill financially, committee treasurer Anne L. Gaines says she has not received any contributions from the assemblyman. Draper also has been an ardent supporter of the slate.

The Vincent-backed school board slate of Coleman, Shaw and Brown is under-financed, according to information from second-period campaign disclosure statements, with Brown and Shaw each reporting $535 in contributions. Coleman has raised a little more than $1,800 in her reelection bid.

McNair, however, who also is challenging Coleman, raised $4,000 in the first filing period alone, which ended in mid-February. Because of a reporting error, McNair's second-period filings were not available. Benjamin has also raised about $4,000, while Michael Davis, who is running against Cooper, has raised less than $500.

The City of Inglewood also has two City Council seats on Tuesday's ballot. In that campaign, Vincent is backing District 1 Councilman Daniel K. Tabor and has tried to back District 2 Councilman Anthony Scardenzan as part of the "Inglewood Democratic Team" slate. Scardenzan, however, has rejected the mayor's endorsement and other candidates' attempts to link him with the slate, maintaining that he is running "an independent campaign."

Tabor is being challenged by Yvonne Mitchell and Donald McClure, while Scardenzan faces Jess Willard, Andrew Chapralis and Lee Smith in his reelection bid.

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