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Former L.A. Trade Tech foundation head pleads guilty to embezzlement

Former L.A. Trade Tech foundation head pleads guilty to embezzlement
President Obama speaks at Los Angeles Trade Technical College on July 24. The former executive director of Trade Tech foundation, Jiah "Rhea" Chung, pleaded guilty Friday to one felony county of embezzlement. (Jabin Botsford / Los Angeles Times)

The former executive director of a foundation that raises funds for students at Los Angeles Trade Technical College pleaded guilty to felony embezzlement at a hearing Friday.

Jiah "Rhea" Chung, 44, admitted taking $50,500 and was sentenced to three years of formal probation and 60 days of CalTrans work. She was also ordered to repay the Los Angeles Trade Technical College Foundation the amount she admitted taking.

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Deputy L.A. County Dist. Atty. Dana Aratani said the $50,500 included two years' worth of bonus payments, as well as car allowance payments and various expenses.

"It's a significant case that did involve a position of trust," Aratani said.

Chung's attorney, Pio Kim, questioned the motives of former college and foundation officials who denied authorizing some of the payments to his client.

He said Chung had worked hard for the foundation, including spending weekends with a youth orchestra that was funded by the organization. He said she had taken the plea deal because she "didn't have any real choice."

"The political climate is such that it's so hard for anybody accused of any public integrity crime to get a fair hearing," Kim said. "You're looking at a woman who really physically can't fathom being able to withstand even a single day in prison."

Chung was arrested in February, two years after The Times reported details of her pay and benefits, including a $1,500-a-month car allowance, a $22,000 bonus not allowed under school district policy, and thousands of dollars in expenses paid by the foundation, including dinners and golf outings.

District attorney's officials originally said Chung was suspected of embezzling $140,000 and charged her with three counts each of public corruption, forgery and embezzlement. If convicted on all counts she would have faced a maximum sentence of six years in state prison.

The expense payments surfaced in an audit by the Los Angeles Community College District. The Trade Tech foundation is a semi-autonomous nonprofit organization, but Chung was an employee of the district.

Chung was also initially accused of forging the signature of former Trade Tech President Roland "Chip" Chapdelaine on some of the payments to her. Aratani said other people were sometimes allowed to sign on Chapdelaine's behalf, and prosecutors were not able to prove that Chung was the one who had signed the checks in question.

Aratani said the embezzlement was able to occur in part because of lax oversight of the foundation.

"The foundation, for the most part, was run fairly loosely, with very little control," he said.

Fred MacFarlane, a spokesman for the foundation's board, said the board moved "very quickly" after the scandal "to put checks and balances in place so a circumstance such as this one cannot ever happen again."

Among other things, the board tightened its policies on approving expenditures, and now gets a monthly financial report from a certified public accountant, he said.

MacFarlane said the foundation had given out more than $300,000 in aid to students at the primarily working-class school over the last two years, including scholarships and grants to buy tools for their chosen trades.

Follow Abby Sewell on Twitter at @sewella.

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