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Affidavit Claims Principal’s Use of School Funds

Times Staff Writer

The former principal of Hillcrest High School in Inglewood set up an unauthorized bank account to divert at least $4,000 in school funds for his personal use, according to a sworn statement filed in court by a police investigator.

Leonard Matthews, who has not been charged while the investigation continues, spent the money on clothes, groceries, cosmetics and a $218 Nativity scene that was ordered for the school but sent to his home, according to the affidavit and other police records filed Dec. 7 in Inglewood Municipal Court.

Matthews has declined comment and his attorney, Johnnie L. Cochran, could not be reached. Matthews, who has worked on the election campaigns of several school board members and other Inglewood political figures, was suspended a year ago, but has remained on the district payroll. In the spring he was reassigned to a central office administrative post, and in October board members voted to initiate dismissal proceedings.

Still on Salary

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Those proceedings have not been completed, however, and Matthews continues to work for the district and draw an annual salary of about $60,000, according to board President Caroline Coleman, who cast the lone vote against his dismissal.

Matthews’ removal as principal came after a finance administrator learned of the existence of the unauthorized account and Inglewood police began an investigation. The police inquiry was slowed by a five-month delay in obtaining bank records, according to a sworn statement by Inglewood Detective Paul Harvey, who is in charge of investigating fraud and white-collar crimes. The investigation involved an exhaustive review of school and bank records and interviews of current and former school employees.

Harvey said he could not discuss the matter, but his lengthy affidavit and supporting documents outline the case against the former principal. The affidavit says that over a 16-month period Matthews deposited more than $10,000 into the account and withdrew at least $9,600, but some of the money apparently was his. The investigator said police have evidence that nearly $4,000 in public funds was diverted for Matthews’ personal use.

Seeking Charges

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The documents also say investigators will soon present their findings to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and ask prosecutors to file criminal charges.

The affidavits allege that Matthews opened the unauthorized bank account at Wells Fargo Bank in Inglewood in August, 1986, in the name “Hillcrest High School Clubs/Leonard Matthews.” The documents say he used the account to divert donations intended for the school, as well as profits from a student store and employee paychecks that had been padded with phony overtime claims.

Several employees questioned by investigators said Matthews apparently “padded their time cards so their payroll checks would be larger than they should have been,” Harvey said in the affidavit.

“By depositing these padded checks into the clubs account, he was able to write employees replacement checks for what they had actually earned. The difference between what was paid for by the district and what was earned by the employees was apparently kept by Matthews.”

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The affidavit said at least one of the employees questioned the arrangement but followed the principal’s instructions.

The affidavit was filed last month to obtain a warrant that enabled detectives to search Matthews’ home and his four cars--a Cadillac, a Mercury, and two Mercedes-Benzes, according to the documents. Police seized numerous personal and school financial records, as well as parts from an outdoor Nativity scene: six 30-inch choirboy figurines, six choir girls, two donkeys, two cows, a camel and a 30-inch angel.

The court papers say Matthews ordered those decorations from a North Carolina firm, paid for them with $218.28 from the student body account at Hillcrest, and had them shipped to his home on 5th Avenue in a pleasant east Inglewood neighborhood, which he gave as the address of the school.

According to the court filing, Matthews deposited checks from area businesses and individuals into the account although they were intended as donations for Hillcrest High School activities such as graduations and banquets.

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Police say that bank records show that Matthews also used the account to profit from a school awards dinner held at an Inglewood-area hotel in June, 1987. Police allege he deposited proceeds from the student store and private donations for the banquet into the account, paid for the event with those funds and kept the $207 difference, according to the documents.

On another occasion, the affidavit says, Matthews obtained a $364.50 refund check from a store where the school had ordered and paid for file boxes. Instead of turning the money over to the district when the order was canceled, he deposited it in the account, according to police.

Police suspect that Matthews made a long list of personal purchases with embezzled funds, including clothes bought at numerous men’s shops and department stores, cosmetics, car repairs, and treatment of a pet dog, the documents say.

Before the 3-1 board decision in October to initiate dismissal proceedings against him, Matthews, a 14-year employee, continued working for the district in a truancy program. At the time, the jobs of several higher-ranking administrators were eliminated and other jobs and programs were cut to overcome a budget deficit of more than $3 million last year.

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The dismissal action was one of the first moves by Supt. George McKenna after he assumed the post Oct. 1. McKenna could not be reached for comment this week on the status of the dismissal proceedings against Matthews, and other administrators would not discuss the matter.

Some employees and community activists, including board member Zyra McCloud, have strongly criticized the delay and accused the other board members of protecting Matthews because he has supported them politically.

Board members confirmed that Matthews has worked on the campaigns of past and current board members, including Coleman and board members Larry Aubry and Joseph T. Rouzan. Aubry voted for Matthews’ dismissal. Rouzan was elected in November, after dismissal proceedings were initiated.

Former board member W. R. (Tony) Draper, a critic of political influence in the school district, noted that Matthews was disciplined in 1987 by administrators for using district equipment to prepare political literature on behalf of candidates supported by Inglewood Mayor Edward Vincent. Draper said the fact that Matthews continues working more than a year after suspicions of wrongdoing surfaced at Hillcrest “makes no sense.”

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“They just reassigned him,” Draper said in an interview. “He definitely should not be getting paid.”

While Coleman acknowledged Matthews’ political activism on her behalf, she said it had nothing to do with the board’s handling of his case or the fact that Matthews remains an employee.

“If he wins and we weren’t paying him, we’d have to pay him back salary,” she said. “It’s better that he’s working, rather than leisurely sitting at home.”

But Coleman spoke in Matthews’ defense and said it is possible that the board will take some action at its next meeting to change or modify the decision to fire Matthews, who is scheduled for an administrative hearing Feb. 6.

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“We might decide to do something different, to alter the process,” Coleman said. “Basically it would be to let the criminal proceedings go on, rather than us trying to be a jury.”

Coleman said she believes Matthews is innocent but may have “violated some school codes.”

Board member Aubry also said there has been new discussion among board members about modifying the dismissal effort. He did not explain further.

Aubry said his political relationship with Matthews had not affected his handling of the case, noting that he voted to fire Matthews. Aubry, who won a board seat in a special election in June, said “there may be some merit” to complaints that political factors affected the board’s handling of the case in the first half of 1988.

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Rouzan said he is unaware of any new action on Matthews’ case being contemplated by board members, though he said school board lawyers are negotiating with attorney Cochran in hopes of arriving at a settlement.

“I understand they’re trying to negotiate restitution,” he said. Rouzan also claimed that board members have inadequate information because they have not had access to police records. If charges against Matthews are verified, Rouzan said, “restitution and a demotion of some sort would be the least we could accept. He might even consider resignation.”

Board members McCloud and Hill-Hale could not be reached for comment.


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