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Perks Bring D.A. Probe at College

Compton directors have spent large sums on unexplained services and credit cards and cars that they use personally, records show.

August 31, 2003|Joe Mathews and Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writers

Officials at Compton Community College have spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in the last four years on contracts that they refuse to explain, while receiving costly perks not commonly available to directors of much larger districts.

The expenditures include at least $868,000 to a community organization that the board won't account for, personal credit card accounts and free cars for board members that some keep overnight, and a college-funded trip for the school's president to the 2000 Olympics in Australia. The financial transactions are detailed in copies of contracts, payments, credit card records and other college documents obtained by The Times.

The spending, which has come to light as community colleges like Compton struggle to cope with a state budget crisis, has outraged some faculty members. It also has drawn the attention of prosecutors. Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley is reviewing the college's finances and management to determine whether a criminal investigation is warranted, said spokesman Joseph Scott.

"Abuses of our limited funds continue unabated," an English faculty member, James Johnson, co-president of the Compton Community College Federation of Employees, wrote this spring in a letter to the district attorney.

He added that "abuse of public funds is far greater at the college" than at Compton's city government, where three City Council members and the city manager were indicted in February on felony charges of misusing public funds, including credit cards.

College spokesman Stan Myles said the college would not respond to questions on matters that may be under review by prosecutors. Myles added: "As long as you're looking for negative things, you're not going to get a response."

Other college officials have declined to comment in any detail, saying that The Times is racist and targets Compton for scrutiny because of its minority population.

One of the largest unexplained outlays of public funds under review by prosecutors involves a program called Familias en Progreso, which, according to its contract, operated between 1999 and 2002.

According to the contract, Familias en Progreso was supposed to help the college run a community sports program for which participants would get college credit. By boosting enrollment through the program, the college would gain state education funds, which are allocated on the basis of attendance.

The Times obtained copies of 40 college checks paid to Familias en Progreso between 1998 and 2002, totaling $868,000.

Familias' Inglewood business office has been vacated. Its top officials could not be located by The Times. Checks from the college to Familias for unspecified services were addressed to another Inglewood address -- a house whose longtime owner told The Times he had never heard of Familias or the college.

College officials did not respond to requests for a full accounting of how the dollars were spent. Myles said, "We had it for a while, and it was terminated a couple of years ago. I'm not sure what it did." Board President Kent Swift, a trustee since 1991, said: "I'm trying to find out myself what the program did, but I don't have an answer yet."

Board member Ignacio Pena also said he knew little about the program; he referred reporters to the college administration. "It was there before I got there" in 1991, he said.

But photocopies of six college checks totaling $125,000 that had been made out to Familias en Progreso, along with supporting documents, indicate Pena picked up the checks. He signed for them between December 1999 and April 2001.

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Trail of Checks Unclear

Pena acknowledged he had picked up the checks, saying he had done so at the request of Familias en Progreso because the organization was not being paid on time by the college. Pena said he could not recall who from the organization had asked him to collect the checks or to whom he had given the checks afterward.

Other checks were picked up by Guadalupe Espitia and Roberto Bayardo, Familias staff members who the college said can no longer be located.

The Times could not locate Bayardo, either. His last address was listed at Pena's house, according to a search of public records. "That's some type of mistake," Pena said in a recent interview.

But Espitia, who quit working for Familias in the spring of 2002, told The Times that she had given the Familias checks that she had picked up from the college to Pena. Photocopies of college records indicate that seven checks were picked up by Espitia in 2001 and 2002, totaling $121,191. Espitia also said that Pena had hired her, and that Pena was the head of Familias en Progreso. She said she had seen Bayardo only two or three times.

Pena said Espitia had been mistaken: He had not hired Espitia and had not directed Familias. Pena acknowledged that Espitia had delivered the college checks for Familias to his office, but said that other representatives from Familias in turn had picked up the checks from him.

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