January 19, 2007
Maricopa County sheriff’s investigators are targeting two college presidents in their probe of fraud within the county’s community college district, court records show.
Larry Christiansen, Mesa Community College’s president, is named along with Homero Lopez, president of Avondale’s Estrella Mountain Community College, in search warrants that authorized raids at the campuses this week.
A handful of past and current employees at Scottsdale Community College and MCC are under investigation as sheriff’s deputies try to build criminal cases, court orders released Thursday show.
The cases involve a litany of fraud and other criminal wrongdoing throughout the Maricopa County Community College District, the nation’s largest junior college system.
Deputies served warrants at the colleges and district headquarters in Tempe on Wednesday morning, seizing college presidents’ computers and a hoard of internal documents.
Lt. Paul Chagolla, a sheriff’s office spokesman, said investigators continued to remove possible evidence from the colleges Thursday and are likely to continue today.
“There was a lot of material they were moving,” Chagolla said.
Christiansen and Lopez are the highest-ranking officials under investigation.
The sheriff’s office also is investigating:
• Steven Meredith, former head of the Maricopa Institute for Art and Entertainment Technology at SCC, and his wife, Patricia Bodell, a longtime director of the Scottsdale college’s dance department.
• Pinny Sheoran, director of the Business & Industry Institute at MCC.
• Allen Benedict, MCC’s former athletic director.
• Elena Manuel, former secretary for MCC’s athletic department.
• Stephen Green, an SCC music professor fired by the district in July for multiple improprieties.
• Chris Jensen, a film professor at the Scottsdale college.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio said he launched the investigation about a month ago, following a flurry of media reports documenting problems at the district.
Nearly all those targeted in the investigation were key players in major internal fraud audits from the past five years.
In October, the Tribune published a series detailing the cases of theft, enrollment fraud, misspent scholarship money, gross mismanagement and nepotism throughout the system.
The Tribune found that employee misconduct went largely unpunished and when criminal activity surfaced, college officials did not notify law enforcement.
In articles late last year, The Arizona Republic documented that district employees — particularly at MCC — and elected officials spent more than $300,000 on international travel during the past five years. College officials defend the trips as critical to faculty development and business arrangements that create cash flow for the district.
The potential cases against Christiansen and Lopez appear to stem from recent controversy over the presidents’ trips abroad. District spending on international travel has raised questions of how students benefit when officials visit foreign countries.
Lopez declined to comment on Thursday.
In a prepared statement, Christiansen said only that the college “has fully cooperated with the investigation and will continue to do so.”
MCCCD Chancellor Rufus Glasper ordered all employees to refer reporters’ questions to the district’s spokeswoman, Chris Chesrown.
The SCC employees named in the warrants were all involved in the Maricopa Institute for Art and Entertainment Technology, a performing arts program that folded in 2005. A district auditor uncovered that Meredith had used enrollment fraud to keep the program afloat for several years. For much of that time, the program didn’t sign up enough students to justify its existence.
Meredith retired from SCC in June and now teaches at Snow College in Utah. Neither Meredith nor Bodell could be reached for comment Thursday.
Green’s attorney, Janet Feltz, declined to comment for the former music professor. Jensen did not return calls for comment.
District auditors suspected that Manuel, MCC’s former athletic department secretary, was responsible for the disappearance of thousands of dollars in travel cash in 2003. Her boss, Benedict, was cited for mismanagement and travel improprieties.
Christiansen allowed Manuel to resign without consequence. Benedict retired in December. Neither could be reached for comment.
Linda Rosenthal, president of the district’s governing board, said MCCCD is assisting the investigation. The board is not scheduled to address the issues being investigated.
“There’ll be no particular action on this,” Rosenthal said.