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CAMPAIGN 2000

Buchanan's Pick Had Checkered Career

Politics: Former L.A. teacher Ezola Foster claimed a mental illness to collect workers' comp.

August 24, 2000|DOUG SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ezola Foster, Pat Buchanan's running mate on the Reform Party ticket, collected workers' compensation payments for nearly a year for a mental disorder she now says she did not have.

The disability claim, which was contested by her employer, the Los Angeles Unified School District, capped a checkered career in which Foster struggled financially as a result of bad business deals and twice resigned as a teacher after becoming embroiled in controversy, according to court records and interviews.

Foster applied for workers' compensation in 1996, shortly after refusing to return to her job as a typing teacher at Bell High School.

"I have two choices to survive," Foster said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "Since it wasn't physical, they make it mental, don't they? If I don't have a broken leg or they don't see blood, or I'm not dead, they said I have to be crazy. And I would have been to go back there."

The real reason she could not return to work, she said, was that her outspoken opposition to illegal immigration had made her a target of what she claimed was hatemongering and physical threats at an overwhelmingly Latino school.

The diagnosis of a mental disorder--which she declined to specify--was worked out "between my doctor and my attorney. . . . It's whatever the doctor said that, after working with my attorney, was best to help me," she said.

But although she claimed a mental disorder to receive the benefits, she strongly asserted that she has no mental problems and never did.

"I am perfectly sane," Foster said.

Queried further about the matter, Foster asked whether a story was being done about her. She then told a reporter that it was his decision "if you want to put down there I pretended to be crazy when I'm not." Shortly afterward, she hung up.

In a statement, Bay Buchanan, the candidate's sister and executive co-chairwoman of the campaign, said: "Ezola Foster is an outstanding individual. Pat could not be more proud of his choice for vice president. As for her personal life from many years ago, we have no comment or concern."

Buchanan, a conservative commentator and former speech writer for Richard Nixon, is battling a rival Reform Party faction for $12.6 million in federal campaign financing that goes to the party's nominee. The party was founded in 1992 by billionaire industrialist Ross Perot.

When Buchanan picked Foster, his aides hailed her as a proponent of family values. Commentators saw the choice of Foster, an outspoken black conservative, as a smart political stroke that gave Buchanan an ideological soul mate and a buffer against charges that his rhetoric is racially inflammatory.

Records obtained from the state Workers' Compensation Appeals Board show that Foster applied for benefits based on a mental condition. The precise claim, however, was blacked out of the public records, and attorneys for Foster have opposed a request by The Times to obtain the complete file. The appeals board has scheduled a hearing for Monday. She collected benefits until becoming eligible for retirement at age 60.

The disability claim was the final act in a long-running saga of Foster's difficulties with the Los Angeles school district. District records show that in 1984 she resigned her teaching job at Jordan High School in South-Central Los Angeles. Her record there included one incident in which she filed a complaint with the teachers union charging a colleague with spreading rumors about her.

"It was so bizarre," said Don Baer, a retired teachers union official who investigated the complaint, which he found merited no action. "I tried to drop it out of my memory bank."

As Foster tells it, she fell out of favor because she stuck up for students who were being failed based solely on absences, a practice she contends violates state law.

After fighting off a forced transfer, Foster said, she faced so much hostility that she had to demand a transfer. It was denied.

"The only way I could get a transfer was to leave the district," she said.

She returned to teaching in less than a year when she got the job at Bell.

After about a decade at that school, she filed suit against the district. According to the suit, two teachers inflamed the school against her after she appeared on the nationally televised "McNeil/Lehrer News Hour" in 1996 to argue for legislation that would have allowed states to prohibit schools from enrolling illegal immigrants.

On the show, Foster said she believed that illegal immigration was the primary cause of overcrowding in the Los Angeles school system.

"They called me a racist, a liar," Foster said. "They called me a Nazi."

Foster also charged that students under the supervision of a teacher threatened her with death and threw frozen soda cans in her direction when she spoke at an anti-immigration rally sponsored by Voice of Citizens Together. The group contends that Mexican political leaders and agitators in the U.S. are conspiring to reclaim Mexican sovereignty over the Southwest.

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