Suit Filed in Leadership Dispute at Military School in Carlsbad

Times Staff Writer

Travel-trailer magnate Johnnie R. Crean was a roughhewn candidate for Congress who was so unpalatable that after winning the Republican nomination in 1982, GOP activists successfully backed a write-in candidate.

Today, Crean is under fire again, this time from parents and faculty revolting against his 10-year chairmanship of the Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad, California's only private military boarding school.

A lawsuit filed in late February against Crean, 53, describes him as unsafe, reckless, bizarre, erratic, violent, vulgar, despotic and paranoid. A parents group and academy president Stephen M. Bliss want to oust Crean and his board of directors and appoint a trustee for the nonprofit school.

The lawsuit, filed in San Diego County Superior Court, cites Crean's misdemeanor conviction last year for carrying a loaded gun into the Orange County courthouse in Santa Ana -- a crime he dismissed as a "senior moment" shortly after his arrest. In 2001, the school's former dean of admissions accused Crean of sexual harassment, and the academy paid an undisclosed sum to settle the case.

The new lawsuit alleges that edicts from Crean, such as barring adult chaperons from living in dorms that house nearly 300 boys, endanger cadets' safety and the school's accreditation. His profit-sharing plan, which shifted fund-raising duties to faculty, is illegal and threatens the school's nonprofit status, the suit also contends.

"What's happened is tragic," Bliss, a retired Army general, said from attorney Michael Winsten's office in Laguna Niguel. "We're fighting for the fate of the school."

That is the same answer Crean gave when asked to respond to the lawsuit's allegations.

Crean said he brought business savvy and better management to the school, where he graduated in 1967. He attended the academy at the urging of his father, Republican donor and philanthropist John R. Crean, who founded Fleetwood Enterprises.

The younger Crean, president of Alpha Leisure Inc. in Chino, declined to be interviewed but issued a statement.

"We will continue to keep our efforts toward making the academy a better place," his statement said. "We have faith, however, that the judicial system will produce a speedy, fair resolution that permits this successful volunteer board to continue considering the best interest of cadets without regard to the alternate agendas represented by this lawsuit."

Last week, Superior Court Judge Thomas P. Nugent extended an order keeping Crean and his six-member board from firing or disciplining employees. The case is scheduled for trial this summer.

Most of the school's faculty and staff of 80, as well as the boards of a parent support group and the alumni association, signed petitions demanding that Crean and the board resign. They complained of high turnover among students and faculty, and of a " 'Lord of the Flies' mentality" where drug use, hazings and theft were rampant.

In one instance, Crean "laughed and joked about an incident on campus that involved his nephew having very young and very naked girls in the nephew's dorm room," the academy's director of parent affairs, Carol Hannasch, wrote in a sworn declaration.

"Had I known that the academy was basically held hostage by an inept board of directors and a chairman with questionable and even dangerous character traits, I would never have enrolled my son," said Dana Hogan of Monarch Beach, who is spearheading the parents' challenge.

The 93-year-old school is known as a venerable, if weathered, institution. It overlooks the Pacific on a 16-acre campus in Carlsbad donated by an anonymous benefactor who bequeathed the land in 1936. Its $6.5-million annual operating budget is fueled by $25,000 annual tuitions for 276 boarding cadets aged 12 through 18. Another 38 boys are day students.

Crean's record as a student at the academy was spotty, he acknowledged in correspondence in the court file. He chafed at authority and military routine and was often in trouble. After five years, when other classmates had risen in military rank, he graduated still a private, according to school records.

In a lengthy e-mail sent to Bliss and other directors in January, Crean predicted the lawsuit would be "fun" and defended himself and the board against the allegations.

"It seems to me a school which takes boys who have a hard time figuring out rules might well be best run by adults who have overcome such issues, rather than persons who never did anything wrong," he wrote.

The suit has generated Crean's first public exposure since 1982. That year, he spent $838,000 to beat 17 other Republican candidates in the primary to represent the congressional seat covering southern Orange County and northern San Diego County.

His win was a shock to party regulars. His political consultants, Butcher-Forde, pumped out such vicious hit mailers attacking other candidates that they were censored by the Republican Party. Crean's raw language and prickly demeanor didn't help.

Carlsbad dentist Ron Packard, who lost the GOP nomination by fewer than 100 votes, was encouraged by Republican activists to launch a long-shot write-in campaign.

Crean spent another $1.1 million in the general election to come in third behind Packard and Democrat Roy Archer. Packard, who went on to serve 18 years in Congress, became only the fourth write-in candidate to win a seat in Congress.

In the late 1980s, Crean responded to a plea from his former school to help raise money. Armed with a hefty donation from his father, he joined the board in 1991 with a former classmate, according to board minutes. In 1995, he recruited three other 1960s classmates to become directors.

Crean took over as board chairman and the academy's CEO in 1994. Since then, he has became a fixture on campus, driving a red Bentley with the license plate "RICH DAD."

The board today includes Crean, his four classmates and a sixth director who has served since 1982. The positions are voluntary and by invitation only. All six directors are named in the lawsuit.

In May 2001, 28 faculty members sent a letter to the board of directors protesting the "capricious decisions of Johnnie Crean." Among their complaints was his opposition to build an endowment for the school. Instead, he directed that a portion of money left at the end of the year would go to employees in lieu of raises -- a plan the academy's attorneys said could run afoul of tax laws, according to court documents.

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