A whistleblower lawsuit filed against the Montebello Unified School District in Southern California ended with two former high-level employees, who’d been fired after exposing internal political corruption, being awarded $3 million in compensatory damages.
The two whistleblowers had originally been the district’s Chief Financial and Operations Officer and Superintendent, and they’d come forward in 2016 about misconduct by Ruben J. Rojas, who was then-Board of Education and Chief Business Officer of the district. Instead of being rewarded for their actions, they were penalized.
The two whistleblowers were former district superintendent Susanna Contreras Smith and former chief financial and operations officer Cleve Pell. According to testimony heard by the jury, Smith had put Rojas on leave after discovering that he was awarding school district contracts to cronies, violating several laws along the way.
When she and Pell notified the board of education about his wrongdoing, the board brought him back and placed both of them on leave, later firing them. The lawsuit filed by the two said that the board had “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.”
Whistleblowers Accuse School Board of Education of Malice
According to the whistleblowers’ findings, Rojas had taken advantage of the district when it had been in a spending mode, prepared to spend much of its $300 million budget on upgrading its aging infrastructure. Calling him “an individual who had crisscrossed California looking for school districts to exploit for his personal benefit,” and accused him of making misrepresentations and omissions regarding his past experience when he had applied for the job. He was eventually fired by the district in March of 2017.