Judge Acquits Coleman of Embezzlement : Throws Out Case, Says District May Owe Inglewood School Trustee Money

January 23, 1986|MICHELE L. NORRIS | Times Staff Writer

Inglewood School Board member Caroline Coleman was acquitted of felony embezzlement charges this week by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge who said the case was a civil matter.

"I think the community would be astonished that we have spent 10 days to reconcile the expense accounts of a board member. . . . It seems to me that this case does not belong in this court," said Superior Court Judge Henry P. Nelson as he stopped the proceedings Tuesday afternoon after the prosecution finished presenting its case.

No Crime Proven

"The district attorney has not proved a crime at this point," said Nelson, who further indicated that the district might owe Coleman money.

Coleman, 48, had been charged with submitting phony expense reports for a $1,200 advance she received from the school district to attend an educational conference in New Orleans in November, 1983. Shortly after returning from the conference, Coleman asked to be reimbursed for an additional $356 in travel expenses.

However, when fellow board members questioned the authenticity of her expense claims several months later, Coleman returned the $1,200 advance and withdrew the claim for additional reimbursement.

After her acquittal, a jubilant Coleman said she plans to resubmit her expense claims. "You bet I'm going to submit a claim for reimbursement," she said.

Her attorney, Johnnie Cochran, said Coleman "gave the district a $1,200 check in good faith. She in effect paid for her own air fare to take a trip that was authorized by the district. This case never should have come this far in the first place."

Cochran said he also will ask the district to pay his bill for defending Coleman.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas A. Gray told the judge he believed the acquittal was an error. He could not be reached for comment afterward.

Through five days of jury selection and an additional three days of testimony, Coleman sat almost stone-like with her hands folded in her lap. Occasionally she would glance back at her 21-year-old daughter, Keely.

When Nelson granted Cochran's motion for a directed verdict of acquittal, Coleman beamed, dropping her head back and showing her first sign of emotion since the trial started on Jan. 9.

"I'm just so glad this whole thing is over," said Coleman, who was suspended without pay from her job as a county probation officer in March, pending resolution of the case. "No one has any idea of what I have been through. This whole ordeal has torn me and my family apart."

Living on Savings

She said she has been living on savings, her $400-a-month salary as a board member and "the good graces of a few friends" and family members.

Cochran said Coleman's car was repossessed this week because she could not afford the payments. Coleman said her daughter Keely moved in with her to help with expenses, and another daughter attending college in Wilberforce, Ohio, had to cut back on classes and take on a part-time job because her mother could no longer help with expenses.

In addition, Coleman said, her son, Dean, moved from Inglewood to Northern California to get away from publicity about the trial.

Despite her ordeal, Coleman said she has no hard feelings for William (Tony) Draper, the board member who brought the case to the district attorney's attention. Draper could not be reached for comment.

Included in Coleman's original expense report were hotel and meal receipts from the New Orleans Hilton where the conference was held and receipts from other nearby restaurants. Coleman also submitted a photocopy of a $425 personal check for conference registration fees and a letter purportedly written by a Delta Air Lines employee to account for $734 in air fare.

The district attorney's office filed charges against Coleman in March, 1985. The case hinged on two key allegations: that Coleman filed an expense claim for a registration fee she had never paid, and that she filed a phony letter from Delta to account for airline expenses.

Robert F. Lucas, an executive director of the National School Boards Assn., which sponsored the New Orleans conference, told the jury that his organization never received Coleman's registration fee, but he acknowledged that she could have attended most of the conference without formally registering.

Gray's second witness, Marie Powell, a supervisor in Delta's records and refunds department, testified that the letter Coleman submitted was on phony Delta Airlines stationery. Powell also testified that her department had no employee named A. Brown--the signature on the letter.

Defense attorney Cochran maintained that Coleman attended the conference thinking she had been registered by a school district secretary. He said Coleman also believed that the secretary had forwarded her $425 check to conference officials.

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