One more look

One more look

PUSD superintendent wants DA to re-examine evidence of Measure Y thefts

By Andre Coleman 12/11/2008

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In a letter released Monday, Pasadena Unified School District Superintendent Edwin Diaz pleaded with LA District Attorney Steve Cooley to re-examine evidence of contractors allegedly bilking the district for almost $300,000 in school improvement funds. 

These instances aren’t the first time funds from Measure Y, a $240 million school repair bond passed by voters in 1997, have gone missing. Contractor Daniel Semaan is believed to have left the country nearly five years ago with more than $200,000 paid by the district for work not completed, but those losses were reimbursed by the contractor’s surety company, according to district officials.

In addition, the district last year prompted an investigation by Pasadena police which uncovered the theft of more than $80,000 in Measure Y funds. However, when detectives submitted their evidence, prosecutors declined to file criminal charges because the school district’s Measure Y record-keeping was not adequate to secure a conviction.But now, Diaz wrote to Cooley, “We strongly believe the trail of improper activities uncovered by the forensic investigator shows illegal activity. … Accordingly, I would like to respectfully request that you re-examine the evidence collected by our forensic auditor and file charges against those involved in this matter.”

The letter referred to documents released as part of a Public Records Act request filed by the Pasadena Star-News after an October story in the Pasadena Weekly revealed that poor oversight and mismanagement of Measure Y money allowed one contractor to make off with more than $80,000 in 2006.

In the newly released documents, forensic auditor Michael Ammermon — hired by the district to lead the investigation — states that between November 2006 and July 2007 the district paid $216,904 to Jessie Yzaguirre, 52, of La Crescenta, an unlicensed contractor. According to Ammermon, Yzaguirre used Advent Construction Co.’s name and business license number, along with a contact within the district, in order to receive money for work on renovation projects at Washington Middle School. After being paid for what he described as “pick-up and haul work,” Yzaguirre allegedly cashed the checks and, according to a copy of a recorded interview with Ammermon, said he gave a cut to his district contact.

Advent Construction Co., headquartered in Glendale, is not owned by Yzaguirre, but by Mark Adamsky, who is not accused of any wrongdoing by the district. Adamsky did not return phone calls for comment on this story. 

When contacted Tuesday morning, Yzaguirre claimed that he never sent the school district any business license number on invoices and has done nothing wrong.

“You are the first one to come to me with this,” Yzaguirre told the Weekly. “Every penny they paid us, we worked for. All the work was inspected by their inspectors and approved by their personnel.”

The invoices approving payments were signed by Mark Kingsbury, who worked as the district’s assistant construction coordinator from September 2000 to July 2007.

Ammermon said that Yzaguirre admitted to the fraud in an interview with him in August 2007 and that Yzaguirre told Ammermon that he gave Kingsbury about $40,000 of the money he made from the district funds.

“Mr. Yzaguirre stated that Mr. Kingsbury received about 20 percent in cash from when PUSD issued the [check],” according to documents released by the district. “The monies were paid in cash to Kingsbury and were given to him when he came by the house or delivered to him at his house. The money was generally paid in hundred dollar bills after the checks were cashed at Bank of America. … Kingsbury was paid $2,000 or $3,500 at a time when the funds cleared the bank.”

“I will not comment on that. I think you need to contact every contractor Mark had contact with,” Yzaguirre said.
According to Ammermon, Yzaguirre later attempted to recant the statement and said he was high on drugs during the interview.

Yzaguirre declined to comment on that allegation, and calls to Kingsbury were not returned. Ammermon told the Weekly he did not interview Kingsbury as part of his investigation and has never spoken to him. Ammermon said his investigation was focused solely on Yzaguirre.

Pasadena Unified School District spokesperson Binti Harvey said that even after the questionable invoices were discovered, Kingsbury continued to demand they be paid.

“The district believes there is clear evidence of, at the very least, mismanagement of funds,” said Harvey. “We trust law enforcement officials to investigate that mismanagement.”

The invoices were forwarded to the Pasadena Police Department in August 2007, one month after the district hired Ammermon to audit Measure Y funds. After reviewing the documents, police considered former Pasadena-based Pacifica Services Inc. employee Eric Peterson as a person of interest in the investigation of the missing $80,000. The district hired Pacifica to complete the Measure Y work at Washington Middle School. PUSD officials suspect Peterson used his own company, Epcon, to improperly bill the district for work that was never completed.

On Monday Lt. John Dewar said the Pasadena police investigation was closed unless the PUSD asked to reopen it.
 “We won’t be asking them to reopen the case,” Harvey said. “The police have conducted a thorough investigation and turned everything over to the DA. It’s up to them now.”

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