Rialto schools chief denies romance with accused embezzler

Rialto schools chief Harold Cebrun denied Friday that he had an "intimate relationship" with a district accountant accused of embezzling $1.8 million after photos emerged that he says show the pair hugging and him giving her a brief kiss.

Nutritional services accountant Judith Oakes, 48, was arrested in August after being seen on video stuffing cash in her bra. She pleaded not guilty Wednesday to 16 felonies and was being held in lieu of $1.8-million bail in what authorities have called the largest white-collar crime in city history.

Cebrun, who was placed on leave as superintendent of the Rialto Unified School District after Oakes was arrested in August, issued a statement Friday through his attorney, Willie W. Williams, saying the photos were leaked by political opponents to embarrass him. 

On Friday, Rialto Police Capt. Randy De Anda said Cebrun is not a suspect and not the subject of an investigation, and his relationship with Oakes is a matter for the school district to handle.

In an alleged confession letter, Oakes said she acted alone.

Cebrun said the pictures--shot after a sports event in a parking lot--were taken out of context. Cebrun, through his lawyer, said in a statement that another district official had given Oakes a brief hug and kiss and then he "walked Ms. Oakes to her car and also gave her a hug and brief kiss."

"This behavior is consistent with the friendship between Dr. Cebrun and (Ms.) Oakes," the statement read.

Cebrun acknowledged in the statement that the pair attended other events and even sat together at an awards dinner with school board members.

"The friendship between Dr. Cebrun and Ms. Oakes was not a secret, and Dr. Cebrun has explained the friendship during the course of the investigations," the statement continued.

He also pointed out that some board members have long sought to oust him. He noted that those in more direct supervisory roles over Oakes remained at work, including the acting superintendent, who oversaw the district's finances.

Oakes oversaw the lunch money collected from the district's 29 schools, along with related state and federal funds. The investigation into Oakes remains ongoing, and police are planning to question other district officials.

An investigative firm hired by the district has so far found a "documented" loss of at least $1.8 million dating to 2005 but warned the losses could be as high as $3.16 million, including discrepancies that could not be documented. 

Oakes resigned the day after her arrest. She earned about $77,000 annually, but by all accounts lived a luxurious lifestyle that included two homes, off-road vehicles and expensive trips.

According to Rialto police Capt. Randy De Anda, Oakes said "she had unfettered access to enormous sums of money over the years — much of it in cash." A search of her home turned up thousands of dollars in cash, De Anda said.

School board members, meanwhile, are questioning the oversight of the lunch money.

"We have to ask: How could this person get away with this for so long? How did someone not catch her sooner or discover earlier that money was missing and the figures weren't adding up?" school board Vice President Edgar Montes said last week.

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