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Educators demanded lavish gifts, parents say

November 17, 2006|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

To get proper schooling for their severely autistic son, an Irvine couple say they were forced to shower employees at his elementary school with diamond jewelry, Coach bags, Chanel perfume and other lavish gifts worth a total of $100,000, according to a legal claim filed this month.

Thomas Lin, a pediatrician, and his wife, Liya, a homemaker, also bought and furnished a condo that a teacher's newlywed daughter and husband lived in rent-free for a year before moving out with the furniture, according to the claim filed Nov. 2 against the Irvine Unified School District and the Orange County Department of Education.

"It was a nightmare for a long time," said Liya Lin, who, on her attorney's advice, declined to comment further.

County Supt. of Education William M. Habermehl said he was told the Lins were not pressured to give gifts in exchange for educating their now 7-year-old son, who could not speak and was not toilet-trained, but said county education officials had launched an investigation.

Teachers can't accept gifts more lavish than the typical flowers, candy or Starbucks gift cards, Habermehl said. "There should never be a situation where parents feel like they have to give."

Irvine Unified officials declined to comment.

In fall 2004, at least 15 private schools rejected the Lins' son, Jonathan, who was briefly enrolled in a county-run classroom, said Lynne Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Lins' attorney, Paul M. Roberts.

Arnold said Liya Lin gave Nancy Melgares, the district's special-education director, a $875 Gucci purse in hopes of getting her son into special-education classes at Canyon View Elementary School in Irvine.

The Lins, immigrants from Taiwan, contend that what began as gestures of goodwill common in their native country soon spiraled out of control.

According to their claim, school and district faculty coerced them into buying extravagant presents, including St. John outfits, $1,000 gift certificates from Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale's, a $700 dinner at the Four Seasons hotel, $500 a month in pastries for the school, and a "priceless" jade bracelet considered a family heirloom.

Arnold said that when Liya Lin's gift-giving waned, their son's care appeared to deteriorate. School employees "started getting more aggressive with her -- calling her, telling her what they wanted" for gifts, Arnold said.

Those who received gifts sent the Lins thank-you cards, a dozen of which are included in their claim. One, from Jonathan's special-education teacher, Nancy Wilson, reads: "I love the jacket and coat! Wow!!" The coat and pearl necklace "will look so wonderful together! The gift card was such a wonderful surprise! You are so amazingly generous."

On the card's front is a heart and the phrase "The best things in the world aren't things."

Wilson, the claim says, also persuaded the Lins to buy an Irvine condo for her daughter and new husband, who lived there for a year without paying rent.

Another of Wilson's adult children asked the Lins for a $100,000 business loan, suggesting that they drum up the money by borrowing against their home, the claim says. Though the Lins refused that and another request for $1 million to start a business, the claim says, they tried to patch up their relationship with the teacher by giving her $2,000 in gift certificates.

Wilson said Thursday that the district had told her not to comment. The other employees named in the complaint didn't return phone calls. They are Melgares; Jan Benner, a program specialist; and therapists Laura Biggerstaff and Darla Bethke.

The gifts stopped when the Lins confided in a friend, who guided them to an attorney, Arnold said. The couple pulled Jonathan out of Canyon View in June to educate him at home.

"I can't think of a parent who wouldn't sell their right arm to help their child," said National Autism Assn. spokesman Scott Bono. "If this is true, to have parents put over the barrel and take advantage of them, it's just despicable."

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Jennifer Delson and David Haldane contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Expensive tastes

Some of the more than $100,000 in gifts that Thomas and Liya Lin say they gave educators who worked with their autistic son at Canyon View Elementary School in Irvine:

* A furnished condominium, rent-free for a year, for a child

of a teacher.

* $2,800 2-carat diamond ring.

* $1,700 bracelet.

* $1,500 set of watches.

* $1,500 St. John outfit.

* $1,000 gift certificates to Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale's and Macy's.

* $1,000 pearl necklace.

* $875 Gucci purse.

* $700 to $800 dinner at the Four Seasons hotel.

* $700 Louis Vuitton purses.

* $280 Chanel scarf.

* $230 ruby necklace.

* $200 Chanel perfume.

* Godiva chocolates.

* A family heirloom jade bracelet described as "priceless."

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Source: Complaint filed with the Orange County Department of Education and the Irvine Unified School District.

Los Angeles Times

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