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First 5 LA ex-chief to get sizable severance despite having quit

Evelyn V. Martinez, who left after a critical audit of the children's service agency, says she was forced to resign. An official says she was given the choice of resigning rather than being fired.

November 25, 2011|By Jason Song, Los Angeles Times

The board of First 5 LA will give its former chief executive officer an expensive severance package even after she resigned earlier this month following a critical audit of the agency.

Evelyn V. Martinez submitted a letter on Nov. 10, saying the commissioners had required her to resign instead of being fired without cause from the independent Los Angeles County agency, which uses state cigarette taxes to fund health, safety and educational programs for children from birth to age 5.

In her letter, Martinez said she was entitled to a lump sum payment equal to 12 months of salary and health benefits and her unused vacation. Martinez, who earned more than $240,000 annually, also said she should receive an additional month of pay and health benefit costs because she was not given a 30-day written notice.

Those conditions were included in her most recent contract, but only if she was fired without cause. She was not eligible for severance pay if she resigned or was fired for cause, according to the contract.

"If there is a disagreement with the provisions … please contact me as soon as possible so that I may pursue an alternative course of action," Martinez wrote.

Craig Steele, First 5's interim chief executive officer, said Martinez was given the option to resign rather than be fired.

"Ms. Martinez was offered the opportunity to characterize the separation as a resignation in lieu of a formal termination without cause, out of respect to her long service to First 5 LA," he said in an email.

Martinez had worked for First 5 for about a dozen years.

First 5 commissioners intend to pay her full severance package, Steele said, although they have not determined the total amount yet. The commission will pay Martinez after Thanksgiving.

Commissioners for the board could either not be reached or declined to comment. Commissioners are appointed by county supervisors.

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who chairs the commission, said: "In the best interests of the children, we're going forward." He did not directly address whether Martinez deserved a large severance payment.

An independent audit found late last month that the agency, which has an annual operating budget of about $180 million, had hundreds of millions of dollars that had not been applied to any educational programs. Auditors were also unable to account for some spending because agency staffers kept poor paperwork.

The audit also found that First 5 staffers did not report important information to commissioners, including details of contracts, and that there was not enough documentation to show that competitive bidding took place. And while commissioners are supposed to approve every contract for over $25,000, many of the agreements were approved only by staff, according to the audit.

Some supervisors said they were shocked at the audit. "That's no way to run an agency. That is a prescription for trouble," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said at the time.

County supervisors later voted to consider taking over First 5 LA.

jason.song@latimes.com

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