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Trade-Tech foundation's former leader arrested in embezzlement case

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The former executive director of a foundation set up to help needy students at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College was arrested Thursday on suspicion of embezzlement and public corruption.

Jiah Rhea Chung, 43, was arrested by investigators with the Los Angeles County district attorney's office and is suspected of embezzling nearly $140,000 while she served as the foundation's director between 2009 and 2011, authorities said.

The Times reported on issues surrounding Chung's pay and benefits in early 2012. At the time, she was on administrative leave after an audit by the Los Angeles Community College District found that she had received a $1,500-a-month car allowance, a $22,000 bonus not allowed under district policy and $22,000 in extra pay for running a youth orchestra that was funded by the foundation. The payments came in addition to her $113,000 annual salary.

Bail has been set at $115,000, and Chung is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday on three felony counts each of public corruption, embezzlement and forgery, Deputy Dist. Atty. Dana Aratani said. Efforts to reach an attorney for Chung were unsuccessful.

The foundation is a semiautonomous nonprofit; Chung was an employee of the Los Angeles Community College District.

Foundation records also showed that tens of thousands of dollars were spent on Chung's golf outings, club memberships and restaurant meals.

In an interview with The Times in early 2012, Chung maintained that she worked hard on behalf of the organization and that the expenses were necessary so she could network with business leaders who would donate to the foundation. She said all her expenses and pay were approved by the foundation board's then-Chairman Darryl Holter and by college President Roland "Chip" Chapdelaine.

Chapdelaine, who has since retired, said at the time that he had sometimes signed checks for foundation expenses but insisted he had not authorized Chung's car allowance, bonus pay or extra salary for the orchestra. Foundation minutes showed that the board had voted to give Chung the car allowance, which is the same amount paid to some top district officials, although some board members said they thought it was too high.

Holter, who stepped down from the board amid the uproar over Chung's pay, could not be reached for comment.

A 2012 audit by the college district found that Chapdelaine's signature might have been forged on checks totaling $137,000. The bulk of them were payments totaling $99,676 written to Chung.

Aratani said no further arrests are expected in the case.

Chung had previously hired defense attorney Mark Geragos, who often represents high-profile clients. Geragos did not respond to requests for comment, and it was unclear who would represent Chung in the criminal case.

Fred MacFarlane, a spokesman for the foundation, said the board members had not been notified of Chung's arrest.

"The foundation board has been focused on fulfilling its mission, which is to raise funds for student scholarships," he said.

Scott Svonkin, vice president of the college district's board of trustees, said he was surprised to hear of Chung's arrest. He said that the district had cooperated fully with the district attorney's investigation and that this week, the board had authorized hiring an additional auditor to look at the annual financial reports of all the college foundations.

"Justice is not always swift, but hopefully it will be effective," he said. "It is, I believe, the most egregious kind of crime to steal not only from the public but from people trying to better themselves."

abby.sewell@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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