Debt-ridden ICEF spent nearly $1.4 million on harassment claims

A financially struggling charter school organization has paid nearly $1.4 million to settle three sexual-harassment claims against its highest-profile educator, Fernando Pullum, a widely honored musician and teacher, The Times has learned.

Pullum, 54, quietly left ICEF Public Schools last year, and a school named after him folded into another campus under a different name. Pullum directed performing arts at ICEF, which developed a reputation as a strong program.

ICEF was embroiled in the harassment claims last year as the charter group, which operates 13 schools in south and southwest Los Angeles, was struggling for financial survival. At several junctures, it almost closed. ICEF nearly merged with another charter company due to its debt, but parents, students and staff rose in opposition. New donors and other supporters eventually contributed millions to keep the schools open.

Charters are independently operated but publicly financed.

The first lawsuit was filed in November 2009 on behalf of Wendy Johnson, who worked at ICEF from April 2008 to May 2009 as Pullum’s assistant. In court papers, she alleged that Pullum bragged about his sexual exploits and showed her a sex tape of himself. She also said in court documents that Pullum insisted on having sex with a teacher while Johnson was sharing the room with her on a band trip to Spain.

Johnson, then 39, complained to ICEF management after the trip, according to court documents, and, within a week, she lost her job.

Johnson’s case resulted in a civil court jury verdict against both Pullum and ICEF; ICEF settled the case for $375,000.

The alleged relationship with the 33-year-old dance teacher, Danniell Kyle, resulted in another sexual harassment allegation. ICEF paid her $175,000; a lawsuit was never filed.

The third case was filed in July 2011 by Monika De Yampert, who worked as a dance teacher and administrator under Pullum’s supervision. In court papers, she said a romantic relationship with Pullum first began when she was 16 and that the relationship became sexual — and lasted about seven years — after she turned 18.

In June 2007, when she was in her 30s, ICEF hired her. In 2008, De Yampert alleged, Pullum began pressuring her to have sex, including by threatening to withhold her paycheck or making her pick it up at his home. He allegedly told her she could not complain “because they have previously been in a sexual relationship,” according to the complaint.

In January 2011, she allegedly told Pullum that she’d reported him several times, prompting Pullum to threaten to fire her, according to court filings.

ICEF agreed last month to pay De Yampert $825,000.

ICEF placed Pullum on paid administrative leave in March 2011, where he remained until he left six months later, said ICEF’s chief executive Parker Hudnut. He said confidentiality rules prevent him from discussing the reason for Pullum’s removal.

Pullum did not return calls or emails and signed confidentiality agreements tied to the settlements. He denied any wrongdoing in documents filed in connection with the two cases that resulted in lawsuits.

Under the terms of the settlements, ICEF also admits no wrongdoing. The alleged victims signed confidentiality agreements, but their narratives are laid out in the court records.

For several years, Pullum had been the organization’s star, able to recruit singer Jackson Browne to ICEF’s board. He also recruited artists and groups, including Smokey Robinson and Crosby, Stills & Nash, to headline fundraisers.

Pullum came to ICEF in 2006 after developing an acclaimed music and arts program at Washington Preparatory High School. By 2008, he’d become director of performing arts for ICEF, managing up to 23 employees and supervising the student band. A performing arts school, named after Pullum, opened in 2009; entertainer Bill Cosby recorded a promotional radio spot for it.

Citing the advice of attorneys, Hudnut initially declined to release the settlements, on the grounds that they were confidential and paid for by insurance. L.A. Unified, which authorizes ICEF’s schools, recently inquired about the settlements as well, in response to a reporter’s inquiry. ICEF has not released what it paid to defend the cases, which Hudnut said also was covered by insurance.

Lawsuit settlements are generally considered public records by government agencies, including L.A. Unified, which requires charters to follow public records laws. They also are supposed to report investigations, complaints and lawsuits to the district’s charter office, said L.A. Unified general counsel David Holmquist.