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HMG-LCCN Exposé Results in SEC Rulings Against Ruben Rojas, Montebello Unified, and Superintendent Anthony Martinez

BY BRIAN HEWS

Hews Media Group-Los Cerritos Community News has learned that the Securities and Exchange Commision has filed a complaint against former Montebello Unified Chief Business Officer Ruben Rojas alleging fraud, misleading investigators, defrauding bond purchasers, mail fraud, and assisting the MUSD with the ongoing fraud in the sale of municipal bonds in 2016.

The SEC asks to restrict Rojas from any further municipal bond offerings, impose civil penalties, and “grant such other and further relief, including equitable, as the Court may deem just and proper.”

In addition, the SEC filed an order against MUSD and Montebello Superintendent Anthony James Martinez.

Those documents stated that, “Martinez signed one of the misleading bond offering documents, a misleading letter to LACOE, and false closing certificates that were provided to bond and disclosure counsel and the underwriters in connection with the offering.” 

Martinez was ordered to “cease and desist” on any matters concerning securities and must pay a $10,000 penalty.

SEC investigators point to the audit firm of Vasquez and Vasquez, LP, that raised serious questions in 2016, to Montebello’s Board and management regarding allegations of fraud and internal controls issues at the District. 

This was first reported by HMG-LCCN in March 2017, which triggered the SEC investigation.

At the time Pico Rivera Assistant City Manager Ben Cardenas was Board President and current Commerce City Manager Edgar Cisneros  was vice-president.

Vasquez constantly warned the MUSD Board Members and Martinez, both in open and closed sessions but the MUSD, President Cardenas, Vice President Cisneros, and Board Members Joanna Flores and Lani Cupchoy, along with Rojas and Martinez failed to act.

Former Board Member Hector Chacon was not involved in the defraud scheme.

From the beginning of his employment, Montebello Unified School District’s (MUSD) Chief Business Officer Rueben Rojas has been a lightning rod of controversy.

It was first reported by Hews Media Group-Community News that Rojas had a very troubling employment background, which included lying to both Governor Brown and the MUSD on his resume.

The wide-ranging exposé revealed that everywhere Rojas was employed, allegations of fraud followed, with his subordinate employees eventually figuring out that Rojas possessed a complete lack of knowledge in the most rudimentary business practices, a fact the SEC pointed out.

As a consequence, many of Rojas’ employees resigned, were fired, or placed on leave due to his incessant harassment.

Within one or two years at each position, Rojas would leave or be fired; and he would not include those employment stints on future employment resumes or worse, lie about his success at the positions all together.

The same scenario is took place at MUSD when Rojas united with Cardenas, Cisneros, and their Board allies to take MUSD down a similar path of corruption.

At the time, HMG-LCCN has exclusively obtained letters from the accounting firm of Vasquez and Company LLP (Vasquez), the firm retained to audit the school district, that warned of an ongoing financial scandal of immense proportions being guided by Rojas.

The letters accused Rojas and his management team of, among other things, fraudulent financial transactions, abuse, waste, and handing out sole-source contracts to family and friends.

The letters also implicated certain MUSD Board members, including Cardenas and Cisneros, along with Rojas, using highly questionable stall tactics to delay the public release of Vasquez’ findings of waste, fraud, and abuse.

The letters paint a picture of Rojas firing those that questioned him, some in crucial positions at MUSD, in a wide-ranging plan to conceal blatant financial improprieties.

Most disturbing, the letters showed that then-Board President Benjamin Cardenas deliberately misled everyone at MUSD declaring at the Dec. 7, 2016 Board meeting that “an audit was needed” knowing Vasquez was nearly done with their audit.

Cardenas, who earns a hefty six-figure annual salary with Pico Rivera, called for the audit to implement his strategy and deflect attention away from Vazquez’ findings.

Those findings would eventually implicate Rojas,  Cardenas, and his allies on the Board in and trigger the SEC investigation.

The letters were all written in 2016, dated December 1, December 9 and finally December 29.

 First Letter

The December 1 letter, signed by Margaret J. McBride, Principal at Vasquez, was sent exclusively to then-Board President Cardenas.

Click on image to view larger document.

The letter did not mince words and implicitly indicated they had found fraud linked to Rojas and wanted to meet with the Board in closed session.

The one-page letter stated, “it has come to our attention that the district has recently terminated it’s Chief Executive Officer, former superintendent Susanna Contreras, and Chief Financial and Operations Officer Cleve Pell.”

“We also understand that in recent months the District has experienced the departure of other individuals in key financial management positions.”

The positions included the Budget Control and Accounts Payable Manager, Fiscal Services Manager, Chief Information Technology Officer, and the Controller.

The involuntary departures were specifically meant to interfere with any financial audit looking for fraud.

The letter went on, “accusations regarding Mr. Rojas’ qualifications and integrity have been publicly aired (the HMG-CN exposé on Rojas), and we also have been independently made aware of other allegations of impropriety.”

The letter ended with a request to meet board members in a closed session to “discuss the impact of the (new fraud revelations) on our ability to complete the audit.”

The letter was ignored by Cardenas, Rojas, and Interim Superintendent Martinez, as documented by the SEC.

Six days later, during the Dec. 7 Board meeting, Cardenas and his allies implemented their deflection strategy to draw attention away from Vasquez’ findings as outlined in the first letter.

At the meeting, Cardenas suddenly called for an “audit of the MUSD” even though Vasquez was nearly done and the State mandated deadline was in eight days.

Board President Lani Cupchoy and Board member Joanna Flores quickly agreed with Cardenas.

Interim Superintendent Martinez also agreed with the new audit.

 Second Letter Marked URGENT-

The second letter was sent two days later, this time to all MUSD Board members and MUSD attorney Rick Olivarez, on December 9, with URGENT in bold at the top of the letter.

Click on image to view larger document.

McBride stated, “we previously wrote to Mr. Cardenas regarding a meeting with the Board of Education in closed session, we have not received a response to that letter.”

The letter strongly implicated fraudulent cover-up and financial improprieties by Rojas and his team.

Aiming her comments at the Board, McBride stated, “certain audit procedures have been delayed due to the actions of the District management.”

McBride called for, “other audit procedures (fraud investigations, related party transactions, and no-bid contracts) to be expanded as new information has come to our attention.”

The letter closed with McBride saying, “we reiterate our request for a meeting with the Board to obtain authorization to expand our audit procedures, complete the audit, and render our opinion.”

Once again, Cardenas, Rojas and Martinez ignored the letter, and Cardenas’ Board allies refused to meet with Vasquez in closed session.

 Third Letter-Rojas Fires Vasquez, Hires Another Audit Firm

The third letter was sent – once again to all MUSD Board members and MUSD attorney Rick Olivarez – by Ms. McBride on December 29.

This time the letter went much further, strongly implicating Rojas’ financial improprieties and a cover-up by his Board allies in an effort to keep the corruption from public view.

Click on image to view larger document.

https://i2.wp.com/www.loscerritosnews.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Vasquez_4.png?resize=654%2C790

Click on image to view larger document.

McBride wrote, “On December 22, Rojas stated that he had been directed by the Board to terminate the services of Vasquez. Rojas gave no reason for the termination and stated that another firm would be retained to the conduct the audit.”

McBride stated that the District will incur higher fees, miss the deadline for California, and was in danger of missing Federal deadline.

“We asked if Mr. Rojas advised the Board of these facts and he declined to answer.”

The letter then addressed the Board and slammed Rojas and his team.

“It is important that we inform you (the Board) at the time of our termination we had revised our risk assessment of the district to ‘high risk’ and accordingly expanded our audit procedures to include the areas of fraud, related party transactions, and competitive procurements.”

Translation: Rojas was handing out checks to family members and friends using no-bid sole-source contracts.

“The higher risk was due to numerous factors including communications from several sources alleging fraud in the Business Office, the high-level of turnover in top management, and the inability to communicate with Mr. Rojas.”

The letter went on to describe how Vasquez and McBride had been chasing Rojas and his team since October 20, 2016, “to perform procedures concerning risks and allegations of fraud, information technology controls, and litigation exposure.”

The sources in the Business Office were likely MUSD Superintendent Susanna Contreras and Chief Financial and Operations Officer Cleve Pell.

Fourteen days later, on Nov. 4, 2016, the Board placed Contreras and Pell on administrative leave.

The letter also pointed at Interim Superintendent Martinez as complicit in the cover up.

“The call from Mr. Rojas to terminate (Vasquez) occurred within 45 minutes of our request directly made to Martinez for additional documents as part of our expanded audit procedures.”

The letter then went on to implicate that Cardenas and his Board allies were also in on the cover-up.

“In our letter to Cardenas on December 1, and again in our letter to the Board dated December 9, we requested a meeting to go over the audit findings and expanded (fraud investigation) procedures, that request has not been granted.”

McBride angrily ended her letter stating, “Vasquez will retain our working papers (audit documents) for seven years, however the audit documents are the property of Vasquez.”

Chairperson of MUSD Personnel Commission Charlie Pell said, “Firing professional auditors for doing their job when they uncover and further investigate signs of fraud is a pretty clear sign that they found something that Mr. Rojas and some involved board members wanted to keep hidden from the public. I have to ask myself, what did the auditors find, which caused the district to immediately fired them and effectively have to pay double to hire a new auditing firm? And I can’t believe that Mr. Rojas was given the power to fire the auditing firm, given all the issues in his background.”

And the Rojas issues and attempt to cover-up his corrupt practices are not going away.

At the January 19 meeting, the Board voted to hire San Diego based Christy White and Associates to audit MUSD, paying White $88,000.

The recommendation to hire White was made by Rojas.

One observer told HMG-CN, “No doubt a few board members and a few administrators, along with a pocketful of select vendors working at MUSD, were more than interested in seeing the Gil Vasquez & Associates audit stopped, or the report buried under, or tied to, the front of Metro Rail’s Gold Line Eastside Extension, taking the first train out of town. Perhaps the MUSD should hire the Capstone Advisory Group, find someone to toot the whistle again, and get a federal inspector on board!”

Today the SEC sent out a press release.

The Securities and Exchange Commission today charged Montebello Unified School District (“Montebello” or the “District”), its former Chief Business Officer, and its Superintendent of Schools with defrauding investors by failing to disclose fraud and internal controls concerns raised by the District’s independent auditor.

According to the SEC’s complaint and order, immediately before and concurrently with the District’s sale of $100 million of general obligation bonds in December 2016, Montebello’s independent auditor repeatedly raised concerns about allegations of fraud and internal controls issues to the District’s Board of Education and management. In response, Montebello allegedly refused to authorize the fees needed for the audit firm to complete its audit and instead decided to terminate the audit firm.  The offering documents for Montebello’s December 2016 bonds failed to disclose this information to investors and instead included a copy of the District’s audit report from the prior fiscal year, which included an unmodified or “clean” audit opinion from the firm. The SEC alleges that Ruben Rojas, Montebello’s former Chief Business Officer, helped prepare the misleading offering documents and also concealed the audit firm’s concerns by providing deceptive updates about the status of its pending audit to various gatekeepers, including the disclosure lawyers who worked on the bond offering. The SEC’s order found that Anthony Martinez, Montebello’s Superintendent of Schools, signed the final bond offering document and made false certifications in connection with the bonds.

The SEC’s complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, charges Rojas with violating the antifraud provisions of Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5 thereunder as well as Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933, and seeks permanent and conduct-based injunctions as well as a financial penalty.

Montebello and Martinez agreed to settle with the SEC and consented to the SEC’s order without admitting or denying the findings. Montebello was ordered to cease and desist from future violations of the antifraud provisions of Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5 thereunder as well as Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933. It also agreed to engage an independent consultant to evaluate its policies and procedures related to its municipal securities disclosures. Martinez was ordered to cease and desist from future violations of Section 17(a)(3) of the Securities Act of 1933 and also ordered to pay a $10,000 penalty.

The SEC’s investigation was conducted by Jason H. Lee and Creighton Papier, and supervised by Monique Winkler, of the Public Finance Abuse Unit. The litigation against Rojas will be led by John Yun and Mr. Lee.

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One Response to HMG-LCCN Exposé Results in SEC Rulings Against Ruben Rojas, Montebello Unified, and Superintendent Anthony Martinez

  1. Mike Diaz

    September 25, 2019 at 5:14 am

    Another Scandal, Another Financial Fraud by the same knockleheads these greedy bustards need to go prison, they need to do time.

    These are serious offenses, they are stealing money flagrant and viciously.

    These teachers are out of Control right Maricela Hernandez and Mr. Duarte and of course Ms. Hinojosa and the rest of the Montebello Unified CARTEL!!