Suit alleges misuse of federal immigrant education funds

The Associated Press
Thursday May 10, 2001

LOS ANGELES — The state Department of Education has filed a civil suit against a Hispanic immigrants rights group alleging that it failed to account for $7 million in federal funds intended for citizenship and English classes for immigrants. 

The lawsuit filed Tuesday against Los Angeles-based Hermandad Mexicana Nacional also seeks $10 million in punitive damages for failing to properly account for grants received between 1994 and 1998, when the state stopped funding. 

“After three years of going around and around with Hermandad, it became obvious that the only way we are going to get what we need from Hermandad is through legal action,” said education department spokesman Doug Stone. 

Hermandad officials denied any wrongdoing. 

“They are grasping at straws,” said Nativo Lopez, who heads a splinter group based in Santa Ana that was formed after the January death of Hermandad founder Bert Corona. 

Angelina Casillas, the widow of Corona, runs the original organization and its Los Angeles offices. 

The lawsuit names Hermandad, Lopez, the Santa Ana group and possibly 50 other unnamed parties as defendants. 

“We are all in that mix,” Lopez, a member of the Santa Ana Unified school board, told the Los Angeles Times in Wednesday’s newspaper. “It is not clear. All that is going to have be cleared. ... The executive director (Corona) passed away, and they are grasping at whomever they can.” 

Emily Durkee, a San Diego attorney representing Hermandad, declined to comment saying she had not yet seen  

the lawsuit. 

The lawsuit is the latest action involving Hermandad and other nonprofit groups that received federal funds to provide English and civics lessons to immigrants seeking citizenship. 

Federal officials have said a separate federal probe is continuing. 

The state alleges that Hermandad did not properly account for the federal funds it received and accused the group’s officials of defrauding the state with incomplete or fraudulent documentation of expenses. 

Allegations that community-based organizations misused federal adult education funds first surfaced in 1998. 

Hermandad was among 10 community organizations probed by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general for their handling of nearly $15 million in federal grants. 

The state Department of Education in February also filed a lawsuit against the nonprofit Templo Calvario Legalization and Education Center in Rancho Cucamonga seeking reimbursement of nearly $3 million. The case is still pending.