In the spring of 2006, a woman told me at a local restaurant about a West Las Vegas schools-sponsored party that cost thousands of dollars. It was invitation only. No kids allowed.
The kicker: It was paid for with taxpayer funds, she said.
That sounded interesting, but unbelievable. I had a lot of stories on my plate at the time, so I didn’t put any time into pursuing this lead.
But one by one, five more people called me up to tell me about the party.
At that point, I figured I’d better do my duty as a reporter and file a public records request. It turned out my informants were absolutely right: The district had forked out $10,000 for a big shindig, put on by the bilingual program, headed by Roberta Vigil, who had been its director for the better part of a decade.
Half of the money went to school board member Ralph Garcia’s restaurant to cater the party, in a bidding process that was questionable at best.
A similar bash was held the previous year.
Earlier this month, Vigil was sentenced to serve three years of probation and repay $13,856 in bilingual education funds to the district for the parties and other illegal spending. A jury had found her guilty of misspending federal bilingual funds for things unrelated to the program.
This may not be all for Vigil. During the trial, a U.S. Education Department investigator was in attendance. Federal charges may be on the way.
At the trial, I thought Vigil’s attorney, Sam Bregman, mounted a strong defense. Before the closing arguments, it was looking as if the former West official would prevail.
Bregman noted that his client didn’t pocket a single dime and that every expense was approved by her superiors. This was all true.
But Shannon Murdock with the AG’s office told the jury that Vigil did benefit in the form of popularity. Vigil was able to provide others with free food and entertainment.
“People like that,” Murdock said.
The prosecutor also pointed out that in documents, Vigil referred to the food as “sustenance for a workshop.” Why didn’t Vigil just call it “food for a party?”
Vigil called New Mexico musician Al Hurricane a “trainer” for the “workshop,” rather than a performer. All of these words were designed to deceive others, including Vigil’s higher-ups, the state contended.
(During a lunch break, I heard one prosecutor jokingly tell another, “It’s time to get some sustenance.”)
Bregman put on a good case. But in his closing argument, he was left to admitting that while the money for the parties wasn’t well-spent, it didn’t rise to the level of a crime.
The improper bilingual spending still has effects on the school district. More than three years later, the state Public Education Department maintains enhanced oversight of West’s finances as a result of the scandals.
To be sure, we haven’t heard of any big parties at West in recent times.
• • •
Not long ago, someone suggested that the Vigil clan doesn’t like the Optic because of our reporting on the scandals. Maybe so, but the Vigils’ position on the bilingual bash has finally come full circle — to the point where they agree with the newspaper’s editorial position of the last three years.
The editorial board never asserted that the spending on the parties was a crime. We felt that was a matter best left for the justice system.
As I mentioned already, Bregman, the Vigil family’s attorney, said he didn’t like how the money was spent. And during her sentencing, Vigil apologized for the “whole big mess.”
In other words, the Optic and the Vigils agree on the bilingual bashes: They were bad.
David Giuliani is managing editor of the Las Vegas Optic. He may be reached at 425-6796 or email@example.com.