School Whistleblowers Fired, Awarded Millions in Damages
The ex-superintendent of the Montebello Unified School District, Susanna Contreras Smith, and former chief financial and operations officer, Cleve Pell, filed a lawsuit claiming they were fired from their positions back in 2016 for exposing political corruption within the district. The parties have been awarded a total of $3 million in compensatory damages – Smith was given $2.7 million and Pell was awarded $567,665. The two were whistleblowers who came forward and reported misconduct by the former 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 the plaintiffs, and ultimately ordered them to each $1 in punitive damages to each Smith and Pell.
Attorney Matthew Umhofer, for Pell, responded to the jury’s verdicts: “The Montebello Unified School District fired our clients for acting with integrity. The jury’s verdict makes it clear that the school district and certain board members broke the law when they punished our clients for blowing the whistle on lies, fraud, and corruption. This verdict is a vindication for Cleve Pell, but more importantly, it’s a message to the students and parents and teachers of the Montebello that the school board members who did this are serving themselves, not the community. Firing people for reporting fraud is no way to run a school district. We are thrilled with the result, but there’s still work to do in Montebello to make sure that the leadership of the school district is what the students deserve.”
The school district released the following statement in response: “The Montebello Unified School District is disappointed in today’s jury verdict in the case of a lawsuit filed by two former superintendents against the district. We are currently examining all our options, which includes appealing the decision and the $1 in punitive damages imposed on both MUSD board members Benjamin Cardenas and Dr. Lani Cupchoy.”
Smith and Pell officially filed their lawsuit in June 2017. Court documents alleged 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 in the matter. According to the lawsuit, Smith put Rojas on leave and she and Pell brought their findings to the board, but 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 Smith and Pell in retaliation for their whistleblowing.”
After Rojas was hired and some time went by, the plaintiffs said they discovered Rojas was “an individual who had crisscrossed California looking for school districts to exploit for his personal benefit.” Within a year of accepting his position, he began to dish out many lucrative contracts to the people he liked unfairly, violating the state’s Public Contract Code. That’s when Smith and Pell came forward. They were placed on leave by the district, then fired, and subsequently filed their case.