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Trustees Can’t Cancel Elys’ Medical Policy : Benefits: A lawyer says the community college district must pay for coverage despite the couple’s convictions on criminal charges.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Taxpayers will have to foot the bill for more than $70,000 in health benefits for Trustee James T. (Tom) Ely and his wife over the next decade, despite the couple’s recent fraud and embezzlement convictions, officials said Tuesday.

Stuart W. Rudnick, attorney for the Ventura County Community College District, said the district board in November rescinded a policy providing medical, dental and vision benefits for trustees until age 65.

But Ely already was vested in the extended health program, which he had urged fellow board members to approve in 1989, before it was canceled, Rudnick said.

Starting in October, the district will pay $571 a month, a $41 increase over the current rate, for health benefits for Ely and his wife, Ingrid. The couple’s health benefits will cost $6,852 for the fiscal year, officials said.

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Recently, Tom Ely, 55, was convicted of 29 counts of fraud, embezzlement and conspiracy stemming from the theft of more than $15,000 in public funds. He could receive a maximum of six years in prison. Ingrid Ely, 47, convicted of three counts of grand theft, conspiracy and embezzlement, could receive a maximum of three years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 4.

Rudnick said Wednesday that he informed district trustees, who wanted to know last month if they could legally take away the Elys’ benefits in the wake of the convictions, that the couple is entitled to the coverage.

In a letter to Chancellor Thomas G. Lakin, Rudnick cited a California Supreme Court ruling that a public official’s right to vested benefits cannot be taken away because he is removed from office for misconduct or commission of crimes.

Tom Ely, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, has said he has been diagnosed as having cancer and could lose part of his cheek and nose. He is scheduled to undergo surgery later his month, said James E. Farley, his attorney.

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Timothy Hirschberg, president of the Board of Trustees, said the Elys’ health benefits are “a taxpayer rip-off and a giveaway of public funds.”

Hirschberg said he voted against the extended health plan, proposed by Ely in April, 1989, because it was impractical. But the measure passed on a 4-1 vote. It was supported by Ely and trustees Ruth Oren and Julian Tarleton, who are no longer on the board, Hirschberg said.

“I felt the district was being taken advantage of,” Hirschberg said. “The trustees were blocking funds that belonged in the classroom. Now it’s turned into a ballooning fiscal drain.”

Under Ely’s health policy, trustees with 10 years on the board who reach age 50 by the time they retired could receive the health benefits until age 65. Spouses and dependents of eligible trustees also could receive coverage.

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Ely, a board member since 1979, became vested in the program the same year it was adopted.

After new trustees Gregory Cole and Pete Tafoya joined the board last year, the policy was rescinded after the allegations against Ely and his wife surfaced. Ely was not at the meeting when the other board members took the action.

Trustees now receive medical benefits only while they are members of the board.

Farley said district officials should “stop sniveling” about Tom Ely’s medical benefits.

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“This was a benefit that was given to him by the Board of Trustees,” Farley said. “Perhaps it might be a good idea for the coyotes to stop ripping at the carcass.”

In light of Tom Ely’s recent cancer diagnoses, it is cruel for district officials to suggest taking away the couple’s medical benefits, Farley said.

“I have a question for the Board of Trustees,” Farley said. “What should Ely do? Let the cancer rot his face away? He needs the medical treatment.

“They gave him the benefits and now they’re stuck with it. That’s the way life is.”

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