In one year, head of small school district in Lawndale made $663,000. Now he's facing a dozen public corruption charges

During his nearly five years heading the tiny Centinela Valley Union High School District, prosecutors say, Jose A. Fernandez devised policies to dramatically pad his salary and retirement benefits.

In 2013 alone, supervising a handful of schools in Hawthorne and Lawndale, the former superintendent pocketed $663,000 in pay and benefits. He kept the school board in the dark, prosecutors say, covering his actions with lies and misrepresentations.

Now, Fernandez, 57, is facing a dozen public corruption charges and up to 15 years in state prison. Records show he was arrested Wednesday morning and booked into Los Angeles County jail.

Fernandez was charged with six counts of conflict of interest, three counts of misappropriation of public funds, two counts of grand theft and one count of embezzlement with allegations of excessive taking because of the dollar amounts involved, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

The office’s Public Integrity Division opened an investigation in 2014 after the Daily Breeze reported on Fernandez’s excessive salary and fringe benefits, according to a felony complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

For its investigative reporting on Fernandez, the Daily Breeze was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s top honor.

Fernandez served as superintendent of the school district from 2009 until he was fired in 2014.

In December 2010, prosecutors say, he overwhelmed the school board when he asked its members to consider revisions to 3,000 bylaws and policies. He called them “standard updates” based on model policies developed by the California School Boards Assn., according to the complaint, but buried in the deluge of changes were provisions he wrote for his own benefit.

In his contract, officials said, he gave himself the shortest work year — 215 days — of anyone in the district and gave himself sole discretion to determine if he worked extra days, for which he would earn extra pay. The average work year in education is 246 days.

Without the board's full knowledge, he also obtained a $750,000 custom life insurance policy for himself and a $910,000 home loan — at 2% interest over 40 years — paid for with district funds.

Fernandez also concealed from the board a plan to increase his pay in 2013 and misrepresented the cost of a plan to enhance his retirement benefits.

After the Daily Breeze investigation was published, Fernandez told board members that media reports about his compensation were “incorrect and exaggerated.”

A call to the school board Wednesday was not immediately returned.

Fernandez is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday. Prosecutors have recommended his bail be set at $495,000.

A woman who answered Fernandez’s phone Wednesday afternoon said she had no comment and hung up.

If convicted on all the charges, Fernandez faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in state prison.

alene.tchekmedyian@latimes.com

Twitter: @AleneTchek

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