Math Book Deal Adds Up to Trouble

Times Staff Writer

A former Los Angeles Unified School District curriculum director has been accused by district officials of secretly ordering more than $4 million of his own, unauthorized math instruction materials for use in city classrooms.

Matthias Vheru reaped more than $930,000 in royalties after he sidestepped the approval process for textbooks and then shifted district funds to purchase nearly 46,000 copies of the textbooks, workbooks and teaching aids, according to Los Angeles Unified officials and a lawsuit filed by the district.

Vheru's wife, a former math teacher in the district, and the books' publishing company are named in the lawsuit.

Attorneys for the couple and Coordination Group Publications denied the claims.

Vheru and his wife, Blandina, resigned from the district in April.

The case came to light Thursday in an annual report submitted to school board members by district Inspector General Jerry Thornton. Along with several other inquiries and audits, his office investigated the allegations against Vheru and uncovered alleged irregularities in salary payments he received from the district.

Hired as a math teacher in 1982, Vheru, 55, held several administrative positions before taking over as interim director of math in January 2004.

In that position, Vheru allegedly added the algebra instructional materials he wrote for Coordination Group Publications to a list of supplemental texts that had been approved by a curriculum committee, said Kevin Reed, an attorney for the district.

From May 18 to June 18, 2004, court records show, Vheru placed three orders with the publisher on behalf of the district for copies of his books, which are aimed at helping students learn the algebra material required by state standards.

To cover more than $3 million of the costs, Vheru illegally used federal education funds that had been earmarked for programs that assist nonnative English speakers, the lawsuit alleges. The remaining money came from other district funds, officials said.

Reed said Vheru was able to make the purchases undetected because of his temporary status as the district's math chief.

Officials first became aware of the books when they arrived on campuses and administrators raised questions about them.

"There weren't sufficient checks in place," said L.A. Unified Supt. Roy Romer, who has ordered staff to tighten oversight of book purchases.

"But sometimes it is hard to have enough rules in place to stop someone who is determined to do something like this," he said.

The district's new policy calls for book orders that total more than $100,000 to be approved by one of the district's chief instructional officers. An assistant superintendent is required to sign off on any order totaling more than $62,500, and employees who make the orders must certify that they have no financial interest in the books.

When district officials learned about Vheru's books, they spent about $15,000 to retrieve the texts from middle and high schools and take them to a downtown warehouse, Reed said.

About half of the texts are in the warehouse. The other half had gone to students.

David Baum, the lawyer representing Vheru and his wife, denied the charges against the pair and has formally denied the allegations in Los Angeles Superior Court documents.

Baum said he did not know how Vheru's books appeared on the list of approved materials. But, he said, Vheru alerted district officials that he had written the math books and that he had been told by others to use the restricted federal funds to buy them.

"He did everything he could to make the district aware of what was going on and gave them the opportunity to stop the sale, and nobody said squat," Baum said.

"He just happened to have authored the books," the attorney said. "Why should the kids be punished and not given the best material that is available?"

The materials were aimed at helping students and teachers prepare for the new California High School Exit Exam. Earlier this month, state textbook reviewers adopted the materials for use in schools.

Reed acknowledged that Vheru formally declared he wrote the books in a statement filed with the district ethics office. But Reed rebutted the contention that Vheru had announced his intention to purchase the books for the district.

State law forbids public employees from benefiting financially from any business contracts they order. As a result, Thornton said in his report, he referred the case to federal authorities for possible criminal prosecution.

In investigating the allegations against Vheru, Thornton's staff also raised questions about irregularities in his paychecks. In his report to board members, Thornton alleged that Vheru manipulated timecards to claim more than $21,000 in unearned sick and vacation pay.

Reed said the district had begun disciplinary procedures against Vheru, but that he had resigned before they were completed.

John Slafsky, the attorney for Coordination Group Publications, denied claims that the publisher had conspired with Vheru. The firm has sued Vheru, alleging that he should be responsible for any judgments against the company.

On June 28, after the publisher received the book orders, the company wrote a letter to the district's ethics office, alerting officials that they would be paying Vheru royalties for the purchases.

The letter did not indicate, however, that Vheru had placed the orders himself.

"The critical fact here is that the orders that resulted in more than $3.5 million of his own books being purchased by the district were signed by his own hand," Reed said. "He bought those books without anyone knowing about it."

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