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Ex-Museum Official Pleads No Contest in Theft Case : Crime: Man was accused of embezzling $2.1 million from L.A. County Museum of Natural History and its foundation over six years.

September 12, 1995|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The former chief deputy director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History pleaded no contest Monday to charges that he embezzled $2.1 million from the museum and its foundation.

Marcus Arthur Rodridguez, 53, of Glendale appeared in Los Angeles Superior Court in connection with 22 counts, including embezzlement, forgery, misuse of public funds, money laundering and conspiracy.

Over a six-year period between July, 1988, and May, 1994, prosecutors contend, Rodriguez, with the help of a former secretary and the foundation's former chief accountant, skimmed funds from county money, museum ticket sales and private donations.

While overseeing the museum foundation and a satellite facility, the George C. Page Museum in the Mid-Wilshire district, Rodriguez allegedly used the stolen money to buy three cars for himself and family members. He also bought presents such as jewelry for several friends and paid off thousands of dollars in monthly credit card bills.

Sentencing was set for Nov. 14 in Los Angeles Superior Court. Rodriguez faces a maximum 12-year sentence.

Prosecutors said Monday that they were pleased with the results.

"Yes, we're very happy," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph D. Shidler. "As far as the court is concerned, a no-contest plea is exactly the same and is treated the same as a guilty plea."

Also charged in the case are Marissa Meroney, 41, of Chino Hills, the former chief financial officer for the Museum of Natural History Foundation, and Cristina Elizabeth Coleman, 41, Rodriguez's former secretary.

A preliminary hearing for both women is set for Oct. 2. Meroney is charged with two counts of conspiracy and one count of grand theft. Coleman has been charged with receiving stolen property and grand theft.

Shidler said Rodriguez wrote checks for cashier's checks that were made out to Coleman, who was his secretary until 1992. The money was funneled to accounts under Meroney's name or jointly under the names of both women, Shidler said.

The irregularities surfaced in late 1994, shortly after James L. Powell, new director of the 80-year-old institution, noticed discrepancies in financial statements while revamping the museum's management and operating procedures.

In a prepared statement, Powell said Monday that the museum plans to seek reimbursement for the missing funds.

"Of course, I deeply regret that any money was stolen from the museum and will continue vigorously to recover every penny. My decision to tighten financial procedures and then to inform the district attorney of my evidence of wrongdoing by Rodriguez was obviously the right one."

James Gilson, vice president and general counsel of the Natural History Foundation, said Monday that the institution will soon file suit in state court to recover the funds as well as pursue "other possible sources of recovery."

Powell said he had no explanation as to what drove a $92,000-a-year museum executive to such extremes. "I can't put myself in his place," he said. "You and I wouldn't have done that. And I can't understand someone who would. Especially at a time when the museum was laying off people and closing off parts of exhibits. It was unconscionable."

Prosecutor Shidler said the length of Rodriguez's sentence depends on the sentencing judge.

"He's still got a roll of the dice on that one," he said.

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