State education officials on Tuesday ordered a well-known immigrant rights organization to pay back $4.3 million it received for adult education classes for the last three years, concluding that it was impossible to determine whether the funds were properly spent.
In addition to the action taken against Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a second group, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was ordered to repay nearly $400,000 in adult education funds. Funding for the new fiscal year, which begins today, was also stripped from Hermandad, LULAC and three smaller immigrant education groups across the state.
For the Los Angeles- and Santa Ana-based Hermandad, the loss of its prime source of funds could bankrupt what is the state's oldest immigrant rights group, which department officials noted has been teetering on the brink of insolvency since 1995.
Hermandad's development director, board member Angelina Casillas, denied any wrongdoing and said membership nationwide will help keep the group afloat. "We will fight the state Department of Education, and we know we are right. We know we have used this money to provide a service to the community."
Arturo Montes, past statewide director of LULAC, called the moves "a witch hunt" aimed at Latino activists. Montes said California's poorest non-English-speaking citizens "from strawberry pickers to garment workers to the hotel workers who tuck you in at night" would be hurt by the funding cuts.
Education officials said funding for LULAC and the smaller groups was cut after they failed to provide required annual audits. In Hermandad's case, officials said, years' worth of shoddy bookkeeping, financial insecurity and a refusal to provide proof of how the money was spent triggered the demand for a refund and the funding cuts.
"During the four-year period that your organization has received the federal adult education funds, there has been substantial evidence of disregard and neglect on the part of your organization to adhere to the requirements or even show good faith effort to attempt to accomplish compliance," wrote Assistant Supt. Mary Weaver in a six-page letter to Hermandad.
The department also is reviewing $3.2 million awarded Hermandad for 1997-98, and may require a refund of that too, Weaver said.
Hermandad, LULAC and the three other groups involved in Tuesday's action have 30 days to appeal and provide needed documentation, but "the burden of proof is on them," said state education spokesman Doug Stone. The other three organizations are from Pomona, Palmdale and San Francisco.
The FBI and the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Education are probing whether Hermandad and nine other community-based organizations misused $15 million in federal funds earmarked to teach English to new immigrants in previous years.
To date, investigators have subpoenaed more than 8,000 documents and are conducting ongoing interviews as part of the probe. LULAC was not one of the other groups named in subpoenas served on the state Department of Education.
Montes from LULAC said the probe and the cuts are an effort "by the Republican Party to eliminate any organization that is working for immigrant rights and civil rights."
Hermandad came to the public's attention after the hotly contested 1996 race between Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and former Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), amid allegations that the group illegally helped register noncitizens as voters, some of whom cast ballots in that election. But a probe by the Orange County district attorney's office and the grand jury failed to substantiate allegations of voter fraud.
State education Deputy Supt. Henry Der said the cut in funds had nothing to do with anti-immigrant politics, noting that his boss, state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, has spoken out against anti-immigration initiatives, including Proposition 187.
Der said the state's actions were taken as part of new efforts to set up fair rules for all of the organizations that receive federal funding. In past years, as many as 40 organizations have shared as much as $30 million in funding for citizenship and English classes.