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Math teacher awaits verdict in fraud trial

Matthias Vheru is accused of making nearly $1 million by arranging for L.A. Unified to order 45,000 copies of his textbook without revealing his financial interest in the transaction.

February 16, 2009|Alicia Lozano

Sipping a cup of coffee in the Los Angeles courthouse where he is on trial for fraud, math teacher Matthias Vheru said all he wanted to do was write the best algebra book possible to help his students and those of his colleagues.

"I spent my life trying to help underachieving kids," said Vheru, wearing a tie with a mathematical equation that read: 2 teach is 2 touch life 4 ever. "I'm just trying to make the language of math easy to understand."

Prosecutors, however, say Vheru is a crafty entrepreneur who illegally reaped nearly $1 million by conning the Los Angeles Unified School District into ordering 45,000 copies of his textbook without revealing his financial interest in the transaction.

A federal court jury is deliberating whether Vheru, a 20-year L.A. Unified veteran, is guilty of crimes that could send him to prison for up to 10 years.

According to prosecutors, Vheru, 53, saw a chance to make some extra cash by defrauding L.A. Unified in 2004 while he served as interim director of mathematics.

"He's not charged with being a bad teacher," Assistant U.S. Atty. Paul Rochmes told jurors in his closing arguments last week. "This is a case about deception."

Prosecutors allege that Vheru misappropriated $3.7 million of the district's money to purchase his books. He did so, they allege, by circumventing L.A. Unified's guidelines and using federal funds earmarked to assist non-English-speaking students. Prosecution experts testified that although Vheru's book is appropriate for English speakers, it could be difficult to understand for those without a strong command of the language.

As a result of the district's purchase, Vheru received about $930,000. Vheru is charged with 11 counts of wire fraud and one count of misapplication of funds. The wire fraud charges stem from e-mails and faxes between Vheru and his publishing company, Coordination Group Publications, based in Britain, which prosecutors contend show Vheru's intent to defraud the district.

During closing arguments last week, Vheru's attorney, Steven Haney, pointed out that an expert witness for the defense had testified that Vheru's book is well-suited for non-English-speaking students. He said the author included prompts and visual aids to help students who might get lost following instructions in English.

Haney also said that Vheru obtained approval from both the mathematics department and the accounting office before placing the purchase order. Disclosing royalties on book sales was not part of L.A. Unified policy, his attorney said, adding that teachers frequently write textbooks that are used in the district.

"The district has a lot of problems, and they took it out on my client," Haney said. "We should spend money on real criminals, not algebra teachers."

Vheru was asked to resign from his job with the district in May 2005. The district had sued him a few months earlier and, as a result, the teacher was ordered to pay the district $300,000 and give it any future royalties, his attorney said.

Vheru and his wife Blandina, 49, both natives of Zimbabwe, immigrated to the United States in 1978. They were high school sweethearts and said in an interview that they shared a passion for academics.

After receiving his degree from Andrews University, an Adventist school in Michigan, Vheru moved to Los Angeles in hopes of working with disadvantaged youth. He became a math teacher at John C. Fremont High School in South L.A., then transferred nine years later to Locke High School in Watts, where he taught for 11 years.

During his two decades as a math teacher, Vheru said, he co-wrote a geometry textbook, which was later adopted by the district. In 2004, Vheru left the classroom to take an administrative position with L.A. Unified.

During the five months that he served as interim math director, Vheru approved and purchased his algebra textbook for use in Los Angeles classrooms. The book was adopted by the district in 2005 and is still in use, he said.

Working as an administrator, he said, "was the biggest mistake" of his life.

As a result of Vheru's case, his wife said, she was asked to resign as a third-grade teacher for L.A. Unified in 2005. She said she is working in real estate; Vheru is writing an advanced algebra textbook and has taught since September 2005 at Knight High School in Palmdale. He said he mentors other teachers on how to teach math.

As he finished his coffee last week, Vheru said he was less concerned about his fate than about what would happen to his students, many of whom are underprivileged.

"You have to encourage the underdog," he said.

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alicia.lozano@latimes.com

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