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Coleman Ordered to Stand Trial in School Expense Claim Case

June 16, 1985|PATRICIA LOPEZ | Times Staff Writer

Inglewood School Board member Caroline Coleman will be tried on a felony charge that she submitted false expense claims to the district for more than $1,500, a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge ruled last week.

At a preliminary hearing Thursday, Judge Leon S. Kaplan ordered Coleman to stand trial in Los Angeles Superior Court after hearing testimony that no record exists of Coleman attending a November, 1983, educational conference in New Orleans for which she accepted district money.

"There is sufficient cause to believe the offense the defendant is accused of has been committed," said Kaplan, who set June 28 for arraignment in Superior Court.

The actual trial is expected to begin in August. If convicted of a felony, Coleman would face up to three years in prison, would be forced to resign her board seat and would be barred from holding public office in the future. Coleman, who has been suspended from her job as a probation officer, would lose the position if she is convicted.

Declines Comment

Coleman had no comment after the hearing. Her attorney, Johnnie Cochran, called the evidence presented Thursday "slight" and said he intends to produce witnesses who can attest to Coleman's attendance at the conference.

"You can go to a conference without registering or paying the fees," he said. "Whether she formally registered for the conference does not amount to embezzlement." If she did not register for the conference, he said, "this is a civil matter rather than a criminal one."

Cochran maintained that Coleman attended "non-ticketed" events at the conference, for which no registration record would exist.

He said the $1,500 went for air fare, hotels, meals and incidental expenses.

Witnesses to Be Called

He said that at the trial "you can expect to see other school district officials to testify that she was, in fact, at the conference."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Ed Fern, who is prosecuting the case, said prosecutors believe Coleman did fly to New Orleans but did not attend the conference.

School board member William (Tony) Draper, who requested an investigation by the Los Angeles district attorney's office in July and who testified Thursday, said he was "elated" by the decision to bind Coleman over for trial.

"This is the second step," he said after the hearing. "I think the evidence is strong."

$1,200 Returned

Coleman returned a $1,200 advance she received from the district after questions arose about her expense claims.

Draper testified in court that Coleman failed to submit a canceled check for registration fees when he requested it. Instead, she presented a copy of the front of a check for $425 written for registration fees to the American School Board Journal, which held the conference.

Fern presented sworn testimony from a representative of Coleman's bank that the check had never been presented for payment.

Conference official Robert F. Lucas of the National School Board Assn., based in Alexandria, Va., testified that no registration forms for Coleman could be found.

Delta Air Lines Letter

Fern also produced written testimony from a Delta Air Lines official who said that a letter Coleman submitted to the school board as proof of what she paid for air fare was fraudulent.

In a packet of receipts Coleman submitted to the board in April, 1984, she included a letter signed by "A. Brown" in Delta's "Refunds and Reverifications Department" that said Coleman paid a fare of $734--about double what the district would normally expect to pay for round-trip fare to New Orleans two years ago, according to Draper.

Delta employee Marie Powell testified in writing that there was no such employee or department, that the letter was not on official Delta stationery and that the Delta flight numbers listed in the letter did not conform to actual flights.

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