Witnesses: West misused funds

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By David Giuliani

SANTA FE — A state inspector general contends the West Las Vegas school district used its money for bilingual programs as a “slush fund.”

In the state’s eyes, the district spent more than half of the hundreds of thousands of dollars of bilingual money for illegitimate purposes. Alleged inappropriate purchases included exercise equipment, a javelin and an electronic sign for the entrance to West Las Vegas High School.

And even an R-rated movie called “In the Bedroom.”

During a daylong hearing Tuesday, the state Public Education Department case brought forward witnesses as it tried to build a case against West’s former bilingual director, Roberta Vigil. The agency is proposing to revoke Vigil’s educational licenses.

However, Vigil and her attorney, Sam Bregman, didn’t show up at the hearing, which took place at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. Vigil herself had requested the hearing.

The hearing officer, Barbara Michael, said at the hearing that she had been informed that Bregman wouldn’t be there.

Bregman didn’t return a call for comment this morning.

Nearly two years ago, the state launched an investigation into spending in the bilingual program after the Optic reported that the program had spent nearly $10,000 on an adults-only, invitation-only party, about half of which went toward a school board member’s restaurant.

During the hearing, Agnes Spiess, who has worked in the bilingual program for seven years, testified how Naomi Vicenti, the district’s former business manager, wouldn’t approve some of Vigil’s spending requests when Spiess took such documents to the business office.

“When I took them back to Roberta Vigil, she would tell me to just hang onto the paperwork and that she would take care of it,” Spiess said.

Spiess said it was a small office and that she would then hear Vigil call her husband, state Rep. Richard Vigil, D-Ribera. She said the lawmaker would take the matter to Superintendent Joe Baca and that the district would approve the requests that Vicenti had originally questioned by the very next day.

Spiess said that one time, Roberta Vigil had her take to Vicenti a spending request to purchase a javelin and other sports equipment with bilingual funds. She said the director justified it by saying that the items would be used in the classroom, although Spiess testified that she thought it was ridiculous.

“I just did what I was told,” she said.

Spiess also said she wondered how the program could justify spending nearly $10,000 for the party in April 2006, which was billed as a workshop for employees. The funding for the party came from a bill originally written by Richard Vigil.

Asked by Bruce Berlin, an attorney with the Public Education Department, if she thought the party helped employees, Spiess responded, “There was no training. Only drinking, to see how much we could drink.”

The state has never been able to obtain an invitation list, but Spiess testified, “If Mr. Vigil didn’t like someone, they wouldn’t be invited.”

School board member Ralph Garcia’s restaurant won the catering business for the party. After the Optic requested the documentation for the bidding process in May 2006, the district presented information in which the bilingual program had requested quotes from Garcia and three Santa Fe restaurants. However, representatives from all three restaurants told the Optic in 2006 that they hadn’t given quotes to the program. Representatives from two of the restaurants provided the same testimony Tuesday.

Sheridan Bamman, the Public Education Department’s inspector general, questioned the party documentation during her testimony. She noted that it was marked as a sole source contract, meaning that only one place could provide such a service in Las Vegas. She doubted that was the case in a town the size of Las Vegas, adding that other restaurants could likely also offer catering.

She said the party didn’t come close to meeting the requirements of the bilingual grants.

“Not even close. That would explain the public outcry after the party was made public,” Bamman said.

She added that Garcia’s restaurant, Abraham’s Tiendita, didn’t have a catering license.

As for the entire federal grants for the bilingual programs, Bamman said less than half was spent for the intended purpose of education for English-language learners. She also said the spending wasn’t guided by any general plan and that it appeared as if the bilingual money was used as a “slush fund.”

In many cases, she said, the district was using the bilingual funding for general operations, which she called inappropriate. In one instance, the program spent federal money on a multi-shelf janitor’s cart and fingertip moisturizers.

From her investigation, Bamman said she found that Baca approved Vigil’s spending requests quickly, while Vicenti tended to have questions.

“Naomi Vicenti frequently had reservations. When she had objections, they were always overridden,” she said.

She noted that the program — with Vigil’s signature — spent $52 on four videos at Blockbuster, including “Hamlet” and “In the Bedroom.” She said she couldn’t find any reason why a bilingual program would want the R-rated movie, “In the Bedroom.”

As for the thousands of dollars spent on furniture, Bamman said it was executive-style and barely could fit the bilingual offices. And a $970 refrigerator seemed too large for the small number of employees in the bilingual program, she said.

Bamman said the program also spent nearly $14,000 on an electronic sign for the high school’s entrance. The sign normally contains announcements for coming events.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with bilingual education,” she said.

The two-day hearing resumes today.