Four days before going to trial, the state Department of Education agreed Friday to dismiss a civil lawsuit against former Santa Ana school board member Nativo V. Lopez that alleged he and an organization he heads failed to account for $7 million in federal grant funds.
"We've been vindicated and exonerated of the charges," Lopez said immediately afterward. "These were false allegations, which is what I said from the beginning. It's unfortunate that it's taken two years and thousands of dollars on our part for [the other side] to come to the same conclusion."
David Cheit, an attorney representing the state, gave it a slightly different spin: "I characterize it as an agreement to end the case. We decided not to go to trial, and they decided not to go to trial. We have our reasons and they have theirs."
The lawsuit, filed in May 2001, alleged that Lopez -- along with an immigrant rights group he heads called Hermandad Mexicana Nacional of Santa Ana and a Los Angeles-based group called Hermandad Mexicana Nacional Legal Center -- had accepted the federal grant money to provide citizenship and English-language classes for immigrants but never did.
"Defendants repeatedly claimed to have provided thousands upon thousands of hours of instruction that they did not, in fact, provide," the lawsuit said.
Lopez said the action against him played a major role in his recall last month. "I've been pummeled by the press, which repeated the allegations in almost every article having anything to do with me," he said.
Under the terms of the settlement reached Friday, a $6.7- million judgment will be entered against the Hermandad legal center in Los Angeles, which is separate from Lopez and the Santa Ana group. According to both sides, however, that organization has essentially become defunct since the lawsuit was filed.
Mark Rosen, Lopez's attorney, described the lawsuit as a mistaken effort to lump the Sana Ana Hermandad group with the organization in Los Angeles from which it had split more than two years before. In fact, he said, the Orange County group provided citizenship classes to immigrants, for which it had been inadequately reimbursed by the program's administrators in Los Angeles.
Rosen said Friday's settlement "removes a cloud" from over Lopez.