Petty Persecutions

Will The County Attorney Play Schoolyard Bully For The TUSD Rat Pack?

By Chris Limberis

UNSATISFIED IN THEIR quest to ruin Tucson High School Principal Cecilia Mendoza's life, TUSD administrators are asking Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall to do their dirty work.

Tucson Unified School District Superintendent George F. Garcia, using one of his tax-supported legal lackeys, last week asked LaWall to review TUSD investigative reports on Mendoza for possible prosecution.

At issue is Mendoza's role in approving the expenditure last year of $879 for a mailing to parents of Tucson High students. The mailing was prepared by the Concerned Citizens for the Future of Tucson High Magnet School in response to the TUSD Governing Board's controversial vote to transfer one of Mendoza's assistant principals, Paul Hatch, to Catalina High School.

Currents The $879 came from a discretionary faculty account funded by such revenues as soda machine sales. TUSD, at the direction of the Governing Board and Garcia, has spent thousands of dollars investigating Mendoza.

Tainted by TUSD's oppressive political alliances, the matter was twice investigated. An internal investigation last year showed Mendoza should not have allowed the parents' group to include student matriculation numbers in the mailout. Mendoza was reprimanded. But TUSD Board Member Gloria Copeland, an ardent Mendoza foe who suffered a crushing defeat in her November 3 re-election bid, and then-Board President Joel Tracy Ireland got Board approval to spend more money on an independent counsel, Ronna Fickbohm.

With an odd mix of piety and the type of nervousness that comes from not being comfortable with the subject matter, Fickbohm flipped the previous investigation. She said Mendoza was in violation of state law over the use of the $879.

Ireland, Copeland and the rest of the TUSD Board handed the matter to Garcia. And Assistant Superintendent Larry Williams, who frequently carried out Copeland's directives, then ordered Mendoza to repay $879.63 by no later than December 18.

Mendoza declined.

In a January 13 letter to LaWall--a copy of which was provided to The Weekly by a Pima County official--TUSD's senior legal counsel Jane Butler asked for review for "possible prosecution."

Mendoza has been credited, along with Hatch, with restoring order to a Tucson High campus torn by fights and riots five years ago. She also has shown toughness in dealing with Garcia, his investigators and the Board by insisting that discussions about her be held in public.

LaWall, a Democrat in her second year, also should remember the peculiar standard set by her longtime predecessor and mentor, Stephen D. Neely in official misconduct cases. Handed a clear conflict of interest case in 1988 against then-county Parks Director Gene Laos, Neely established profit, or lack of it, as a standard for prosecution.

At issue in that case was the restaurant Laos and two partners owned at county-owned Old Tucson. As parks director, Laos was in charge of all leases at Old Tucson in addition to general physical and fiscal oversight of the western theme park. But because his restaurant, the Three Amigos, was a money-loser, Neely said Laos should not be prosecuted--a rationalization, of course, designed to cover for an entrenched bureaucrat's act of craven stupidity, but it was certainly a much clearer situation than Mendoza's. She appeared to act out of genuine concern for one of Tucson's most important institutions.

There's another twist to include now that TUSD's Garcia has asked LaWall to fight his fight. Mendoza has been represented by Tucson lawyer John O'Dowd, a Tucson High alumnus who has been active in a number of Tucson High causes, including opposition to Hatch's transfer. In 1997, O'Dowd's wife filed a claim against the county and LaWall alleging she suffered injuries when LaWall, driving her county-issued car, struck her in a downtown crosswalk. TW

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