LATEST ONLINE UPDATE: Teachers say they went to party, not workshop

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By David Giuliani

SANTA FE — In 2005 and 2006, the West Las Vegas school district held events that were billed as training workshops.

But a number of teachers testified Friday that each function was nothing more than a dinner and a dance. And attendees could buy alcohol if they wanted.

Did the teachers learn anything? They said they didn't.

Friday was the second day in the jury trial of former West bilingual coordinator Roberta Vigil and former school board member Ralph Garcia. The state is trying to prove that the two took part in a scheme to fraudulently misspend public money.

Much of the money in question was from the Title III federal program, which aims to help students learn English. But prosecutors maintain that the district's bilingual program spent money on things not related to English learning. Such misspending included the parties in both 2005 and 2006, athletic equipment and an electronic sign at the entrance to West Las Vegas High School, prosecutors allege.

On Friday, the attorney general's office called six West teachers to the stand in District Court in Santa Fe. All said they had to attend so many workshops to get a stipend as part of a program that taught children Spanish culture. The 2005 and 2006 parties — dubbed "Una Noche Encantada" — were considered eligible workshops.

One teacher, Michelle Marquez, told the court that Una Noche Encantada wasn't like the other workshops she had attended. And, like the others, she said she didn't learn anything.

"I wasn't paying any attention. I was talking with my friends and hanging out," she said.

According to West records, the district spent $9,734 on the 2006 party, with nearly $5,000 going to Abraham's Tiendita, owned by school board member Garcia. The district forked over another $4,250 for Al Hurricane, a top northern New Mexico musician, to perform

Agnes Spiess, one of Vigil's employees at the time, testified that in 2006, she heard a conversation between her co-worker Juanita Sanchez and Vigil in which Vigil told her subordinate to call for quotes from Santa Fe restaurants for Una Noche Encantada.. But that was after the party had occurred, she said.

Spiess said she told Sanchez that if she got the Santa Fe restaurants to fax their menus, the faxes would reveal that such information was sought after the party.

"She was a little afraid to do it, but she did," Spiess said.

In later testimony, however, Sanchez said she wasn't absolutely sure when she got the quotes. She suspected she got the quotes before the function — which differed from Spiess' testimony.

In June 2006, the Optic ran a story detailing the 2006 party's expenses, which triggered the state investigation. West's documents showed that several Santa Fe establishments submitted quotes, but when the Optic interviewed representatives of the eateries, none remembered ever giving such information.

During the trial, Ignatios Patsalis of Tomasita's in Santa Fe told the court that a woman called him from West and that he told her he couldn't deliver the food but gave her estimated prices for the restaurant's products. He said he never gave any quote to the district.

The trial resumes Tuesday and is expected to end Thursday. Former West Las Vegas Superintendent Joseph Baca is set to go on trial in July on charges in connection with the bilingual program.

SIDEBAR: Witness gets in trouble with judge

Agnes Spiess, one of the witnesses in the West Las Vegas corruption trial on Friday, ran into some trouble during her testimony when she referred to a trial last year for one of the defendants.

The trial then was for West Las Vegas bilingual coordinator Roberta Vigil, who was found innocent of other corruption charges related to the bilingual program.

When Spiess mentioned the other proceeding, District Judge Stephen Pfeffer had the jury leave his courtroom and ordered Spiess not to mention the first trial agaIn, apparently out of concern that it would prejudice the jury.

However, a few minutes after the trial resumed, she again referred to the other proceeding. The jury was told to leave.

The judge asked Spiess why she violated his order. She responded that she thought Vigil's attorney, Sam Bregman, was asking her about the first trial.

Pfeffer threatened to hold Spiess in contempt of court if she talked about the first trial again.

Bregman asked if the judge could strike all of Spiess' testimony, a request the judge denied.

The judge responded that he didn't think Spiess' references to the first trial were "particularly prejudicial." But he told Anna Aragon, the attorney for the other defendant, former West school board member Ralph Garcia, that she didn't need to get "the biggest smile" on her face after Spiess mentioned the first trial for a second time.

Spiess resumed her testimony and never again referred to the first trial.