The former superintendent of the Montebello Unified School District was awarded $2.7 million and another former executive was given $567,665 in trial of their lawsuit alleging they were fired in 2016 for exposing political corruption at the district.
Former Superintendent Susanna Contreras Smith and former chief financial and operations officer Cleve Pell contended they were whistleblowers who lost their jobs for coming forward about alleged misconduct by the then-Board of Education and Chief Business Officer Ruben J. Rojas.
The Los Angeles Superior Court jury hearing the case also found that two Board of Education members, Lani Cupchoy and Benjamin Cardenas, acted with malice, oppression or fraud against both plaintiffs, triggering a second phase of trial to determine whether Smith and Pell should be awarded punitive damages.
The same jury was deliberating that part of the case late Monday morning.
Smith and Pell brought the lawsuit in June 2017. The suit alleged that Rojas, who was in charge of the district’s $300 million budget, “was directing lucrative MUSD contracts to cronies in violation of public contracting laws.”
Rojas testified during the trial, and denied any wrongdoing.
According to the lawsuit, Contreras Smith put Rojas on leave and she and Pell brought their findings to the board, but those efforts were thwarted when the trustees “sought to cover up the web of corruption surrounding Rojas, engineered his return from leave by false pretenses and then voted to terminate Contreras Smith and Pell in retaliation for their whistleblowing.”
Rojas was hired by the MUSD at a time when the district had begun efforts to upgrade its aging school facilities. But as time went on, the plaintiffs allege they found out that Rojas was “an individual who had crisscrossed California looking for school districts to exploit for his personal benefit.”
Within a year of his hiring, Rojas awarded many lucrative MUSD contracts to people favored by him, violating the state’s Public Contract Code and other laws in the process, according to the complaint. But instead of heeding the concerns of Contreras and Smith, the board placed both on leave in 2016 and fired them a month later, according to their lawsuit.
Rojas was fired in March 2017.
He was originally a defendant in the lawsuit, but the plaintiffs later dropped him from the case.