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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Official Loses 2nd Credit Card; $2,554 Charged

Probe: Oxnard schools trustee Art Hernandez says he is embarrassed but did not make the purchases.

November 29, 2000|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OXNARD — A credit card company is investigating the expenses on a card held by the president of the high school district board after someone ran up charges over its $2,500 credit limit, school officials said Tuesday.

Art Hernandez, who is finishing his first term on the board of the Oxnard Union High School District, said he lost his wallet and the district-issued credit card. He denied making personal purchases on the card, including $2,300 charged at a jewelry store, and said he reported the lost card immediately to the district.

Hernandez also lost his card in May, after which someone charged $1,777 on it over a two-day period.

"It was careless," Hernandez said about misplacing the card twice within a few months. "But I have never used that card inappropriately."

Assistant Supt. Eric Ortega said the district reported the lost card to First Bankcard Center in Omaha, Neb., on Sept. 28, one day after Hernandez told him it was missing. Two weeks later, a representative from the company called school officials to tell them that items worth several thousand dollars had been charged to the card.

On Tuesday, Hernandez couldn't remember exactly when he lost the second card, saying it was either the end of September or the beginning of October.

The charges, all made Sept. 26, totaled $2,554. Included were $2,300 charged to Muro Jewelers in Oxnard, $191 to Macy's West in Ventura, $52 to three gas stations and $11 to a fast-food restaurant.

"They [the company] felt that the credit card was being misused," Supt. Bill Studt said. "We needed to do whatever was the appropriate thing to do in terms of having the credit card expenses investigated."

The school district issues credit cards to its board members, who can use them to pay for school business such as lunches with school officials or hotel reservations for conferences. The card, which carries the district's name, has a $2,500 credit limit.

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Studt would not say whether he believed Hernandez had done anything wrong. If the credit card company finds anything suspicious during its investigation, the school district plans to turn the matter over to the Oxnard Police Department. The company's investigation will include checking signatures and talking to store employees, school officials said.

Hernandez, 43, said the investigation doesn't worry him, adding that he's confident the signatures on the purchases won't match his. But he is embarrassed about losing the card a second time, he said.

In May, the $1,777 in charges included $1,287 to Daniel's Jewelers in Oxnard, $293 to Wal-Mart and other expenses at Macy's, Vons and three gas stations. That time, the company called Ortega, who asked Hernandez about the charges. Hernandez told Ortega he lost the card. The credit card company covered those expenses and the district issued him a new card.

"In all the time I've had [the card], I've just had a rash of bad luck," Hernandez said. "I just lost it, and somebody went on a spending spree."

Soon after losing it this time, Hernandez said, somebody found his wallet and returned it to him, minus his ATM card and the district credit card. The wallet contained a few of Hernandez's business cards, he said.

Trustee Bob Valles called the expenditures "a serious concern" and said Hernandez or any other school board member shouldn't use the credit card for personal business. Valles said the expenses on Hernandez's card "should be dealt with."

Trustee Steve Stocks said he called the similar charges in May and September suspicious. "This kind of news is very disturbing to me and other board members," he said.

"We're trustees and should abide by the trust the community gave us. We shouldn't abuse that trust."

Hernandez said he rarely used the card and was surprised by the extent of the charges made while it was lost. "I can't imagine I would spend in one year what was on there," he said.

In previous months, Hernandez had used the card for business meals, hotel reservations, car rentals and airline tickets for conferences.

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Linda Muro, owner of Muro Jewelers, said the Sept. 26 purchase was a diamond ring. Muro said she usually checks credit cards against driver's licenses and is sure she did the same that day.

Hernandez asked the district not to replace the lost card, because his term expires shortly. He was elected to the board in 1996, after serving as a trustee in the Rio Elementary School District for five years. Last month, he was elected to the Ventura County Community College District board with nearly 60% of the vote.

Hernandez is the director of the Job and Career Center in downtown Oxnard, part of the county government's welfare-to-work program. He is married, with three teenage children. He said there is no possibility that any of his family members misused the card.

"All my kids are honest students and are good kids and have never had any kind of problems," he said.

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