Investigators: Loss In Rialto School District Embezzlement Exceeds $1.8 Million

(October 4) The Rialto Unified School District embezzlement case is a far more serious, involved and complicated matter than was initially believed, investigators working the case have learned.
Judith Oakes, a school district accountant who had overseen the receipts from the district’s nutrition services division since 1997, was arrested on August 7 on suspicion of embezzlement. According to a Rialto Police Department search warrant, a video camera that had been installed at the district office where she worked caught  her stuffing school lunch money into her bra.
Police and district officials have been tight-lipped with regard to the case, which contains several troubling and even, to outsiders, baffling aspects.
Officials have not disclosed what led to the installation of the camera.
The district had apparently entrusted Oakes, for more than a dozen years, with virtually unrestricted, unmonitored, and unchecked control over not just the accounting of, but the actual physical custody of, the proceeds from the entirety of the district’s school lunch programs before that money was deposited into a district account. No independent audit of the account, or Oakes stewardship of it, had been undertaken until recently.
In addition to the Rialto Police Department, which took the lead in the initial investigation of the matter and arrested Oakes, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office and San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Office have undertaken investigations into the matter. The Rialto Unified District, at the direction of the school board, launched an investigation of the matter in which district superintendent Harold Cebrun was entirely cut out of the loop, and an independent firm, Rancho Cucamonga-based Stewart Investigations Services, was brought in to do the gumshoeing. Jeff Stewart is the lead investigator for Stewart Investigations. More recently, as the fuller implication of what took place registered, the California Department of Education opened up its own probe of the matter.
Much of the case is shrouded in mystery, undisclosed information and outright confusion. Even the nature of the charges against Oakes are unclear. The Superior Court’s on-line record shows that a case – number 1308340790 – was opened against Oakes involving a single charge of PC 459 filed against her on August 12. While the court’s action page with regard to case 1308340790 shows that on August 12 a $50,000 bond was posted for Oakes, the action notation for the following day, August 13, reports that the district attorney was notified but that no case was filed, a seeming contradiction to the previous reference of a PC 459 charge. PC 459 refers to burglary. The record notes that Oakes’  arraignment is scheduled for October 10.
At the September 25 Rialto Unified School District Board meeting, a few tantalizing tidbits surfaced, as a few general and fewer specific preliminary findings from Stewart Investigations Services’ investigation were aired before the board. Indications were that Oakes’ depredations were not just relatively recent but may have been ongoing almost from the time she was hired by the district. The numbers in this regard were startling.
An audit completed in conjunction with the Stewart probe indicated Oakes appears to have made off with $1.8 million of the district’s money over the last eight years, and might have embezzled $3.1 million over the course of 14 years.
Board members were stunned by Stewart’s tentative conclusions. Upon the advice of the district’s legal counsel, Trevin Sims, only a vague outline of the ground covered by Stewart was disclosed publicly.
According to acting superintendent Mohammad Z. Islam “A forensic audit has documented a loss of  $1,811,244.26, but the loss could actually be as high as $3,169,677, taking into account discrepancies that at this time cannot be accounted for.”
The clear implication of Stewart’s findings thus far is that numerous others may have been involved in the embezzlement and law enforcement officials, including the Rialto Police and the district attorney’s office, are engaged in actions that could lead to further arrests and charges.
On both the school board and among various investigators there are sharp differences over Cebrun’s culpability. It is now a given that a close personal relationship had developed between Cebrun and Oakes. Some investigators believe that Cebrun could not have helped noticing that Oakes, the widow of Jack Oakes, a former principal of Ramona-Allesandro Elementary School in San Bernardino, had access to a considerable amount of money beyond what would be normal for someone holding her position with the district.
Cebrun, however, has publicly stated that he had no knowledge of the thefts. He pointedly did not deny having a relationship with Oakes, but said “This crime is an isolated incident of one person… not involving me.”
School board president Joseph Ayala has expressed confidence in Cebrun, who has been with the Rialto district since March 2009 and was superintendent before that in the Compton and Lynwood school districts. But the board last month voted 4-1 to place Cebrun and his second-in command, assistant superintendent of student services James Wallace, on paid administrative leave. On October 2, Ayala asked his board colleagues to reinstate Cebrun, but the board voted 4-1 to keep Cebrun suspended, albeit with pay.

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