The state Department of Education filed a civil suit Tuesday against Los Angeles-based Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, alleging that it failed to account for $7 million in federal grant funds intended for citizenship and English classes for immigrants.
The agency also seeks $10 million in punitive damages against Hermandad, one of the oldest Latino immigrant rights groups in the nation, for failing to properly account for grants it received between 1994 and 1998, when the state halted 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,” education department spokesman Doug Stone said.
Hermandad officials, however, deny any wrongdoing and accuse the education department of using the organization as a scapegoat to cover its own lack of oversight. “They are grasping at straws,” said Nativo Lopez, who was once second in command of Hermandad and head of its Orange County offices.
The state action is the latest chapter in a saga involving Hermandad and other nonprofits that took federal funds to provide lessons in English as a second language and civics to immigrants seeking citizenship. Federal officials say a separate federal probe into the grant programs is continuing.
The state alleges that Hermandad did not properly account for the federal money it received, and accuses Hermandad officials of defrauding the state with incomplete or fraudulent documentation of its expenses.
“Defendants repeatedly claimed to have provided thousands upon thousands of hours of instruction that they did not, in fact, provide,” the lawsuit alleges.
Tuesday’s action comes amid an internal struggle for control of the 50-year-old organization. Since the passing of its longtime leader Bert Corona in January, his widow, Angelina Casillas, and Lopez, have been embroiled in a dispute over the group’s direction.
Casillas is head of the original organization and its offices in Los Angeles. Lopez runs Hermandad Mexicana Nacional of Santa Ana, which broke away from the national group two years ago.
Tuesday’s lawsuit names Hermandad, Lopez, the Santa Ana outfit and possibly 50 other as yet unnamed parties as defendants.
“We are all in that mix,” said Lopez, a member of the Santa Ana Unified school board. “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.”
Casillas did not return calls seeking comments. Emily Durkee, a San Diego attorney representing Hermandad, declined to comment saying she had not seen the suit.
It is the second lawsuit filed by the state since allegations first surfaced in 1998 that community-based organizations misused federal adult education funds.
In February, the Department of Education filed a lawsuit against another nonprofit, Templo Calvario Legalization and Education Center in Rancho Cucamonga, seeking reimbursement of nearly $3 million. That case is pending.
Templo and Hermandad were among 10 community organizations that came under scrutiny by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general in 1998 for their handling of nearly $15 million in federal grants. The state education department ceased funding the groups that year and has since been trying to recover the money.
The federal government also is investigating allegations that the state education agency ignored its own staff’s warnings about irregularities in the program.
If the state education department prevails against Hermandad, it may have trouble collecting any money.
Hermandad Mexicana Nacional Legal Center, the arm of Hermandad in charge of the adult education program, was $520,000 in debt, according to their 1996 tax filings. The center has not filed subsequent tax returns, according to the attorney general’s registry of charitable trusts.