Man says he helped with math questions

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By David Giuliani

SANTA FE — Michael Tripp says he helped out with a few math problems at the West Las Vegas bilingual office four years ago. He probably never expected to think about it again.

But he has — many times.

Tripp, who graduated from West Las Vegas High School in 2005, is one of two key state witnesses in the case against West Las Vegas’ former bilingual director, Roberta Vigil, and her assistant, Beverly Ortega.

Vigil is on trial in Santa Fe District Court for a charge of fraud and conspiracy in connection with an allegation that she helped Ortega to take a test to get an educational license. Ortega faces a count of conspiracy.

On Thursday, Tripp, whose fifth-grade teacher was Vigil, testified that he came into the bilingual office around noon to see his mother, Debbie Tripp, one of Vigil’s employees. As he was about to leave, he said Vigil asked him to help with some math problems on the computer.

Ortega was sitting in front of the computer while Tripp, then a high school senior, figured out a number of math problems for about 15 or 20 minutes, he testified. He said was late to his job as a result.

On cross-examination, Tripp acknowledged that his mother had issues with Vigil.

A couple of days before, a bilingual program employee, Agnes Spiess, testified that when she came into work that day, Vigil told her that everyone was to help Ortega take a test. She added that Michael Tripp was among those who provided answers.

Neither testified about having any knowledge of what the test was for.

Both Tripp and Spiess said they believed that they helped with the answers in November.

The day before, Steven Rowley, the head of the online testing company, told the court that records showed the test was taken in early December. And he said that it was taken during the morning.

Tripp’s testimony on the time of the test gave fodder for Sam Bregman, Vigil’s attorney, who asked Tripp if he was sure the test was taken in November.

Tripp said he was positive because he remembers walking to the district’s central office, where he worked as a clerk during the afternoon. He said he wouldn’t have done that if it were cold.

When Bregman asked Tripp to show on his timesheets when he was late during early December — when the test was actually taken, according to the company — Tripp couldn’t find a day. But he said that maybe he didn’t record his lateness properly.

“You collected money for time supposedly when you weren’t working?” Bregman asked.

Tripp replied that West’s business office would have made sure that his timesheets matched his punch-card records.

Bregman also questioned why Tripp stated in another hearing in May that he spent 45 minutes in the bilingual office helping with the questions, longer than the 15 or 20 minutes in Thursday’s testimony.

“Which answer is the truth?” Bregman asked.

Tripp said it was four years ago and that he had thought about the day again and believed that 15 or 20 minutes was correct “to the best of my knowledge.”

“I don’t remember specific details,” he said.

A couple of days ago, Bregman asked Spiess whom she had lunch with in Santa Fe before her testimony. She told the court that she was with several witnesses, but denied discussing the case.

When asked the same question, Tripp revealed that he had lunch with Mary Jane Robinson, the school district’s federal programs director and a witness in the case; his mother; and Barbara Perea Casey, a former superintendent. He, too, denied talking about the matter.

During the trial on Thursday, Robinson said that educational assistants were required to have licenses — and that includes anyone who has instructional interaction with children. But on cross-examination, she testified that she didn’t know if Ortega had worked with students.

A previous witness had already testified that Ortega received a promotion to testing secretary in December 2004, but didn’t take the test until several days later.

The prosecution is contending that Ortega’s actions showed that she needed a license for her job. The defense, however, has maintained that the state has shown no such requirement and that she already had her new job before she took the test. Additionally, the defense says, she didn’t receive any pay increases once she got the license — thus, no monetary gain.

On Wednesday, Robin Sena, a central office employee, testified that she gave passwords for online tests but that she issued no rules. She said that the test could be taken anywhere and that test-takers could have encyclopedias at their disposal if they wanted.

The defense called no witnesses.

With the jury out of the room, the defense argued for an order from the court to find there was insufficient evidence and dismiss the case.

Bregman contended that his client received no financial gain and that the prosecution, led by Chris Lackmann of the state attorney general’s office, had not produced “a shred of evidence” to show conspiracy.

Bregman also said the state hadn’t shown that anyone helped Ortega with the test, noting that Spiess testified that she never saw the computer screen.

Judge Stephen Pfeffer said he was critical of Sena for how she handled the testing process.

“It’s somewhat incredible to me that she didn’t ask, ‘What are the rules?’” he said.

At the same time, the judge said that people in the education field should know helping on tests is wrong. He said the purpose of assessments is to test people’s skills.

“Based on the evidence, I believe that conspiracy can go to the jury,” he said.

However, the judge reduced the fraud charge from second-degree to third-degree. That’s because the amount of money Ortega gained through alleged cheating was much less than originally believed, he said. According to Robinson’s testimony, Ortega didn’t need a license as an assistant until 2006. The defense had previously counted all of her pay going back to December 2004.

The two sides will give their closing arguments today, and the jury will begin deliberations.