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Lawsuit: L.A. schools paid $470,000 to students not affected by lewd teacher

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • School board felt it was "politically better" to settle claims without waiting for a conviction, ex-official tells CNN
  • District unsuccessfully sought a court "gag order" to keep official from talking about "settlement fiasco"
  • Some students receiving $470,000 each never had contact with convicted lewd teacher
  • School district calls lawsuit's claims "false"

By Michael Martinez and Jaqueline Hurtado

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- A former Los Angeles public schools official is suing the system over settlements with dozens of students who were awarded $470,000 each, alleging that a teacher sentenced to prison on charges of lewd behavior never came into abusive contact with those children.

The lawsuit, by former chief risk officer Gregg Breed of San Bernardino, accuses the district of corruption, lawyer cronyism and incompetence in the way it settled the lawsuit against former teacher Mark Berndt of Miramonte Elementary.

Bernd was recently sentenced to 25 years in prison for putting pupils in bondage, and then photographing them with semen-filled spoons held at their mouths and 3-inch cockroaches crawling across their faces.

Berndt had pleaded no contest to felony lewd acts on 23 children. The scandal led to almost 200 students suing the district, claiming that they, too, were victims.

In a CNN interview Wednesday at his Beverly Hills attorney's office, Breed said he urged the system to wait until a conviction in the Berndt case before settling the student claims. Among the student allegations was that they were forced to eat cookies with semen on them, Breed said.

"There's clearly some children where there was no evidence that they ate a cookie, had semen in their mouth or fluid in their mouth. They are alleging, but it's not necessary true," Breed said.

"I did not agree with settling, but they felt it was politically better and they felt the pressure" from the scandal, he said. "But my view point was to wait and see because we really don't know if there was semen in the classroom.

"This is a sad case," he added. "There is corruption at LAUSD sadly, and there's a lot of people in place supervising that don't have the level of expertise needed to see (the corruption)."

Last June, the school system sought a court injunction imposing "a gag order" on Breed to keep him from publicly discussing "the Miramonte settlement fiasco," his suit said. But a judge dismissed the district's request as long as Breed never mentioned the names of the alleged student victims, Breed said.

On Wednesday, a media consultant hired by the school district to be its spokesman dismissed the allegations as "frivolous" and described Breed as a disgruntled employee.

"The allegations are false. There was a rigorous processing of all the settlements," said Sean Rossall, the consultant serving as spokesman for the system's general counsel. "There had to be substantial information before any settlement made.

"These are nothing more than baseless allegations by a disgruntled former employee," Rossall continued. "He's simply trying to latch on to the attention being paid to Miramonte to try to line his own pocket with millions of dollars, taxpayer dollars.

"It's really unfortunate that he would choose to do this and impact the families that are already impacted by the incident in Miramonte and take this money from our students and schools with baseless allegations," Rossall added.

Last year, General Counsel David Holmquist told CNN that the district was paying $30 million to settle 58 of 191 students' lawsuits alleging they were victims of sexually lewd acts by Berndt. Holmquist called the agreements "good settlements" at the time. The remaining students' claims are still pending.

Breed's lawsuit, which seeks at least $10 million in damages, claims Los Angeles Unifed School District Chief Business and Compliance Counsel Gregory McNair and Holmquist ignored a school list of approved outside attorneys. Instead, the lawsuit claims, they hired outside representation based on McNair's "personal relationships" with those law firms.

Those newly hired legal firms didn't have experience in sexual assault and molestation cases, but still represented the system in handling legal claims filed in the Miramonte abuse case, the lawsuit claims.

One outside counsel was a law firm where McNair once worked, and another was an attorney who was a law school classmate of McNair's, the suit charged.

McNair and Holmquist couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday. School spokesman Rossall said he was speaking on their behalf.

Under an alleged "cronyism" arrangement, the outside attorneys were paid between $390 to $450 an hour -- more than twice the $175-an-hour rate that the board typically paid on its approved list of outside attorneys, the lawsuit claims.

When asking about the legal fees, school spokesman Rossall said the Miramonte case "is a different size of scope in litigation than is typically seen."

"We really need specialists who understood the issues and had the bandwidth to handle the amount of claims being brought forth," Rossall said.

Breed found "numerous errors" in vetting each student claims, such as the lack of signatures verifying information, lack of Social Security numbers, and the wrong names when compared to school classroom rosters, the lawsuit claims.

For example, one pupil who received $470,000 "did not attend classes with the abuser" and "essentially maintained others wanted and got money so he should get some as well," the lawsuit states.

In another example, a girl "was touched just once on the shoulder by the accused teacher," and when this issue was raised, the outside counsel contacted the mediator, who ruled he couldn't change the settlement, the suit said.

"Because the proper vetting process was not followed, LAUSD will be forced to pay $470,000 for a single act of touching on the shoulder," the lawsuit said.

Breed, who has 30 years of experience in risk management, was hired by the district to serve as chief risk officer from April 2012 to June 2013 at a salary of $14,438 a month, the lawsuit said.

Breed claimed that when he acted as a whistleblower in reporting his allegations, his contract was not renewed in an act of retaliation, and he was denied more than $14,000 in annual contributions to his retirement account.

At the time the school district announced the $30 million settlement, Holmquist said taxpayer money and possibly school insurance funds would cover that cost, but those insurance carriers are now refusing to indemnify the school system and fund the settlement because of "attorney incompetence by corruptly selected counsel," the lawsuit contends.

A second teacher at Miramonte Elementary, Martin Springer, was also charged with felony lewd conduct with a girl under age 14 in the aftermath of the Berndt case in 2011. Springer has pleaded not guilty, and his case is pending.

 

The-CNN-Wire

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