IN THE SPOTLIGHT Jeff Rosen, Santa Clara County's District Attorney, and his deputy John Chase announced charges against two former MACSA executives for embezzling more than $1 million in employee retirement payments. Photograph by Jessica Shirley-Donnelly
What did Xavier Campos know? The question weighs on the minds of teachers who worked at charter schools operated by the Mexican American Community Service Agency (MACSA), whose executives raided $1 million from their pension accounts, according to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office.
While employees lost their jobs and retirement contributions, Campos was elected to public office as San Jose’s District 5 councilmember. He worked at the nonprofit for two decades and served as MACSA’s chief operating officer (COO) when the illegal diversion came to light in early 2009. The former MACSA teachers say the nonprofit’s leadership took advantage of their idealism, their commitment to students and their desire to make a difference in the community., instead choosing to pour money into office supplies, affordable housing developments and their six-figure salaries.
Last week, the DA’s office indicted former MACSA CEO Olivia Soza-Mendiola and former CFO Benjamin Tan, but not the third member of the managerial troika: Campos. “Mere knowledge of criminal activity is not enough,’ District Attorney Jeff Rosen said during a press conference.
Lupe Nunez, a vice principal for two years at a MACSA school, says she’s not sure if Campos was involved in the disappearance of funds from the teachers’ retirement accounts, “but you kind of wonder.’
Nunez contributed $230 from each paycheck to her retirement account, about $5,000 overall, and expected MACSA to match the amount. She remembers going to meetings where Soza-Mendiola would give various explanations for the retirement account funding shortfalls. “They were kind of beating around the bush, saying that because of the economy we are going to have to use your funds,’ Nunez says. “So they kind of muddled it up.’
The financials were so muddled, in fact, that it took the DA’s office more than three years to complete its investigation. Michael Sterner, the case’s lead investigator, had his own suspicions about Campos in the report he wrote to support the charges against Soza-Mendiola and Tan. Sterner commented that board meeting notes in 2004 and 2007—meetings that Campos almost assuredly attended—showed widespread awareness of the illegal diversion of retirement payments.
“The board meetings indicate that Mr. Campos took a lead role in the effort to sell real property owned by MACSA in part to satisfy past due pension obligations,’ Sterner wrote. “Thus, Mr. Campos was almost certainly aware that MACSA had failed to make at least some pension payments.’
Nunez recalls that Campos “said he knew nothing about what was going on’ with the pension funds. “He was always very vague.’ After she was let go, Nunez checked her pension balances and saw her money wasn’t there.
A few months later, Campos offered Nunez a job managing his campaign for a San Jose City Council seat. She says she accepted the position not out of loyalty to Campos, but because she needed the work. So did Campos, who seemed to conveniently forget during his 2010 campaign to note in his League of Women’s Voters profile that he worked with MACSA for two decades.
Nunez wonders how Campos could not have known about the pension money diversion. “I cannot fathom how an operations officer cannot know where the funds are,’ she says. “If he didn’t know ... wow! If he did know, shame on him.’
Gordon Smith grew up in downtown San Jose’s Naglee Park neighborhood. When his baby girl arrived five years ago, he moved four blocks to a neighborhood of small wooden homes. “I want to give my daughter the same kind of upbringing I had,’ he says.
The 35-year-old UC-Santa Cruz grad says he took a position with MACSA’s San Jose charter school, Academia Calmecac, even though it was “paying well under market,’ in part because it had a pension plan that matched employees’ 8 percent of paycheck contributions. “That was one of the big plus points of working for MACSA.’
Smith worked there from 2005 to 2009. During that time, he directed about $4,000 a year from his paycheck to his retirement fund, and MACSA deducted the funds. With matching funds, it should have reached around $30,000, he estimates.