By Eduardo Rueda - Investigative Reporter
Last updated February 9, 2017 at 9:15 p.m.
The Superintendent of the San Ysidro School District hired a woman he was in a relationship with and later retaliated against an employee that warned him about the potential conflict of interest in hiring her.
Dr. Julio Fonseca, 41, became the Superintendent in June 2015 after the District’s former leader, Manuel Paul, was indicted in a wide-ranging corruption scandal that lead to the conviction of 15 other defendants. Paul pled guilty to accepting cash from a prospective contractor and was sentenced to 60 days in federal custody.
For Fonseca, who previously served as Assistant Superintendent at Bassett Unified School District in Los Angeles County, the position at San Ysidro is his first assignment
as the leader of a school district.
In December 2015, just a few months into his new job, Fonseca oversaw the hiring of a woman he was dating, and he failed to disclose the personal relationship to Board members before they voted to ratify her employment.
The woman, Alexis Rodriguez, was one of several applicants for the job, but she was the only name forwarded by Fonseca to the Board. Rodriguez was hired on December 10, 2015,
to serve as the Coordinator of the District’s after-school program. Her salary range is $67,373 to $82,839.
At the time she was hired, Rodriguez was the leader of the San Diego Enforcer Girls, the dance team for the Enforcers, a local amateur football team comprised of public safety officials.
The District’s Board policies state that the “Superintendent has primary responsibility for over-seeing the district’s personnel system” and that the “Superintendent shall nominate all personnel for employment, and the Board shall approve only those persons so recommended.”
Further, Board policies state that the “Governing Board is committed to staff and community confidence in district hiring, promotion and other employment decisions by promoting practices that are free of conflicts of interest and/or the appearance of impropriety.”
Michael Curran, of Curran & Curran Law, a local attorney specializing in employment cases, reviewed the case and believes the Superintendent violated Board policies on conflicts of interest, as well as avoiding the appearance of/or actual improprieties.
“It appears Fonseca failed to disclose a romantic relationship that would certainly have been of concern to the Board in reviewing his hiring recommendation,” Curran said.
Weeks before the vote to hire Rodriguez, another District employee, Enrique Gonzalez, ran into Fonseca and Rodriguez in La Jolla over a weekend. Fonseca introduced Gonzalez to Rodriguez.
The day before the Board voted to hire Rodriquez, Fonseca confided in Gonzalez that he was going to hire Rodriguez, and asked that Gonzalez not tell anyone about their relationship. Gonzalez worked closely with Fonseca at the District and reported directly to him. Gonzalez followed that request from his supervisor.
Although the hiring appears at odds with the District’s conflict of interest policies, and may not be illegal, it did create a conflict for the Superintendent.
Soon after Rodriguez began working at the District, Gonzalez informed the District’s outside legal counsel, William Trejo, that several employees in the office were discussing the fact that Fonseca was taking Rodriguez to lunch, not knowing Fonseca already had a personal relationship with her. Gonzalez discussed the issue of Fonseca’s relationship with Rodriquez with several District officials and Trejo.
Within days, Gonzalez was directed not to report directly to the Superintendent any longer, but, instead, to report to Assistant Superintendent Tony Hua. Gonzalez complied with that directive.
Then, on January 19, 2016, Gonzalez’s employment with the District was abruptly terminated without notice. Gonzalez was at his desk when the District’s Human Resources Executive Director, Amy Hunt, asked to meet with him. She then presented Gonzalez with a termination letter and he was escorted from the offices. At the time, Gonzalez was still in the probationary period for new hires and had no employment contract with the District.
The termination letter was signed by Hunt, but included an attachment of the Board Policy that states the “Superintendent or designee may dismiss an employee during the initial probationary period.”
Led by attorney Trejo, the same attorney Gonzalez had discussed Rodriguez’s hiring with, the District began spreading allegations that Gonzalez had missed work, failed to provide work plans, and did not report for duty. Before his termination, however, the District had not provided Gonzalez with any notices, letter of reprimand, or other adverse action or complaints about his work.
Gonzalez contacted an attorney to challenge his termination, feeling he was fired in retaliation for speaking up about the Superintendent’s relationship with Rodriguez. The first contact from Gonzalez’s attorneys, Gomez Trial Attorneys, to the District was a letter dated March 2, 2016.
In that letter, Gonzalez’s attorneys informed the District they represented him, and asked for copies of all District insurance policies, as well as preservation of evidence pertaining to Gonzalez’s employment. The letter made no reference to a lawsuit nor did it demand payment for damages.
Within weeks, the District engaged in settlement talks with Gonzalez, but the District did not investigate the details of his termination. Gonzalez and his attorneys had not yet presented a formal tort claim, nor did any of their letters include demands for payment, damages, or details of the nature of his dispute with the District.
During the time these negotiations were occurring, the Board received an annual evaluation of Fonseca’s performance conducted by Trejo, the District’s lawyer. It does not appear that Trejo informed the Board of the on-going issue of Gonzalez’s termination and his discussions with Trejo about Rodriguez. Fonseca’s contract was later extended to include a pay increase, and an 18-month severance package if he were to be fired.
The following month, before any legal discovery or filings were conducted, the District offered Gonzalez a “Separation Agreement” describing “a lump sum severance payment in an amount equivalent to, and not to exceed, the combined value of one (1) year’s salary ($104,433) and one (1) years’ medical and dental benefits ($9,000 combined total), for a total of one hundred thirteen thousand four hundred and thirty-three dollars ($113,433).”
The agreement also included a waiver of all claims against the District for wrongful termination, retaliation, defamation and other potential claims. Additionally, the agreement included a clause requiring Gonzalez to agree to “keep the terms for this Separation Agreement, and the fact that this Separation Agreement exists, strictly confidential” and that he “will not disclose, discuss, or reveal any information concerning this Separation Agreement” to anyone “including, but not limited to, any member of the press.”
When asked to comment for this story, Gonzalez said he cannot discuss any aspects of his departure from the District. After his departure from the District, Gonzalez became the COO of La Prensa San Diego, as well as a consultant to the California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE).
On April 14, 2016, the Board reported out from a closed session meetings that it had “reviewed and considered a Tort Claim submitted by Gomez Trial Attorneys, dated March 2, 2016” and on a “5-0 vote, the Board rejected the Tort Claim.” The minutes of that meeting do not reflect that any vote was taken to approve the separation agreement. Trejo advised
the Board on its action.
On February 6, 2017, La Prensa San Diego ran an online story detailing Fonseca’s hiring of Rodriguez and the Agreement with Gonzalez. The members of the District’s Board of Trustees and Superintendent were asked for details of any vote taken to approve the agreement, but none of the school officials responded to our requests for comment.
On Monday, San Diegans for Open Government (SanDOG) served a Public Records Act request on the District requesting all documents pertaining to Gonzalez. SanDOG, a local non-profit, is a taxpayer watchdog group. The District has 10 days to comply.
During its meeting this week, the Board went in to closes session and, upon returning, reported out that
it had approved a separation agreement with Gonzalez in close session back on April 14, 2016, nine months earlier. No explanation was given for why the Board had not disclosed the payment to Gonzalez before this week’s La Prensa story.
The agenda for this week’s board meeting did not include any closed session agenda items involving Gonzalez. Under the state’s Brown Act governing public agency meetings, no issue can be discussed without prior notice to the public in order to give speakers an opportunity to address the Board before they deliberate on the item. Discussing and acting upon a non-agendized item is a violation of state open meeting laws.
This week, the District released statements to other media outlets claiming La Prensa’s online story was inaccurate, but has offered no documentation or request for retraction to La Prensa.
What the District has done, however, has been to allege that La Prensa’s coverage of this story is somehow connected to a solar contract between the District and Manzana Energy, a company headed by Art Castañares, Publisher of La Prensa San Diego.
Manzana Energy is currently under contract to build solar energy systems at each of the District’s school sites, as well as a large solar farm at its headquarters offices. The system is scheduled to be completed this fall.
The agreement between Manzana Energy and the District made headlines when Manzana’s contract was abruptly cancelled in 2011. Then-Superintendent Manual Paul claimed the company had not performed under the terms of the agreement. Manzana claimed a culture of corruption existing within the District and the contract was cancelled after Castañares refused to give a Board member a bribe she and her husband demanded from him.
Manzana sued the District for wrongful termination of its contract. During discovery in the case, evidence surfaced proving Superintendent Manuel Paul had accepted a cash bribe from another contractor. Paul was indicted and eventually pled guilty to accepting the money. He served 60 days in federal custody.
In 2014, the lawsuit went to court and, after a 2-week trial, a jury unanimously awarded Manzana a $12 million judgment, finding the District had improperly cancelled the contract without justification.
At the time, the District was near financial insolvency. Instead of forcing the District into bankruptcy, Manzana agreed to accept reinstatement of its original contract. Through a mediator, both sides agreed to end its litigation and allow Manzana to build the solar project. The settlement improved the District’s financial status, raised its bond rating, and allowed the District to refinance its existing bonds to generate over $50 million in savings for taxpayers.
Since then, Manzana has worked to ensure the project is built to meet the current energy needs of the District, and to coordinate the project with the District’s planned modernization upgrades.
On February 8th, Manzana and District officials met to confirm details of the project. There are no contractual issues between the parties, and Manzana continues to operate within the time frames of the agreement.
“Manzana Energy is committed to delivering a great solar project for the District to generate green energy and financial savings for many years to come,” Castañares said.
At the District’s February 9th School Board meeting, Castañares gave an update
on the project, and Board members asked the company to provide updates at monthly board meetings. No issues were raised about the project.
La Prensa also recently published investigative stories that revealed Poway Schools Superintendent John Collins had taken over $345,000 in unauthorized payments from his district. As a result, Collins was place of administrative leave and eventually fired by his Board.
Similarly, La Prensa revealed that Randy Ward, Superintendent of San Diego County schools, had given himself retroactive pay raises and manipulated his contract to receive two raises a year. His pay totaled more than $330,000 per year before he was placed on administrative leave in 2015, then later terminated.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The print version of this story, featured on our February 10, 2017 edition, erroneously named Mario A. Cortez as its author.