Coleman Votes on Own Legal Fees : Inglewood Trustee Breaks Deadlock on Reimbursement

Times Staff Writer

Against the advice of two attorneys, Inglewood school Trustee Caroline Coleman cast the crucial third vote for a measure that will reimburse her for $12,721 in attorney fees she spent during her felony embezzlement trial earlier this year.

School district attorney Howard Knee and a lawyer in the Los Angeles County counsel's office had recommended that Coleman not vote on the reimbursement measure, saying she might have a conflict of interest. In a memo to the school board, Knee said Coleman's financial interest in the measure "may affect her duty to evaluate the issue impartially."

Attorneys advised the full board on the reimbursement issue, but Coleman did not need board approval to vote.

Though Coleman was not available for comment after the Monday night meeting, she said in an earlier interview that she had "thought long and hard on the issue and decided that my vote was justified."

Acquitted of Charges

Coleman, 48, was acquitted in January of charges that she filed phony receipts to account for a $1,200 advance she received from the district to attend an educational conference in New Orleans in November, 1983. Shortly after returning from the conference, Coleman asked to be reimbursed for an additional $356 in travel expenses.

Coleman resubmitted her receipts for travel expenses and filed for reimbursement of her legal fees in early February. The school board agreed to reimburse the $356 in travel expenses in March without question.

"I'm not just doing this arbitrarily," said Coleman, who sat quietly while board members argued about whether she should vote. "One of the district's two attorneys has studied the matter, and he fully agrees that I should be able to vote on this."

Artis C. Grant Jr., hired as a second attorney for the school district last year after a new board majority was elected, said Coleman could vote on the measure and cited a state government code provision that permits elected officials to participate in decisions that affect their own "salary, per diem or reimbursement."

Measure Failed Earlier

"Reimbursement is not considered monetary gain," Grant told board members at a March 24 meeting when a measure to reimburse Coleman failed in a 2-2 deadlock--including Coleman's vote--with board President William Dorn absent.

Knee disagreed, saying Coleman was seeking reimbursement for something other than official school board business. "It is reasonably foreseeable that her income or personal expenses will be increased or decreased . . . as a result of the decision," Knee said.

Without Coleman's vote the measure would have failed again Monday with board members Dorn and Ernest Shaw supporting the reimbursement and Rose Mary Benjamin and William (Tony) Draper opposed.

At Benjamin's urging, Supt. Rex Fortune got a third opinion on Coleman's voting eligibility from county counsel attorneys. On Monday, Fortune reported that Deputy Counsel Audrey Oliver said Coleman should abstain from voting on the reimbursement issue, but further noted that neither the superintendent nor individual board members could prohibit her from doing so.

Grant maintained that the board should pay the $12,721 fee to avoid paying twice that much if Coleman sued the district for reimbursement.

Wiser Course

"It certainly appears to be wiser to pay $12,000, rather than pay attorneys $30,000 just to find out if the district should have paid the $12,000 in the first place," Grant said.

But in avoiding one lawsuit, board members may have gained another. The board's action brought a storm of protest from the standing-room-only crowd at Monday's meeting with several parents and community groups threatening to file a class-action suit against the board.

Ken Gossett, a 16-year Inglewood resident, said "If Coleman doesn't sue the district, then we the residents will because she clearly shouldn't be voting on this matter.

"Without her vote the district wouldn't be strapped with these fees. It's beyond me how a district that has to teach classes in a church basement because it can't afford to build new facilities can just throw away $12,000 just like that."

District officials said the attorney fees will be taken out of a legal defense fund and will not affect the system's general operating budget.

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