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http://www.ocregister.com/local/hermandad00510cci.shtml

Hermandad chief shrugs off allegations

Lopez says group will survive lawsuit charging it misused state funds.

May 10, 2001

BY COURTNEY PERKES AND MARTIN WISCKOL The Orange County Register

Nativo Lopez, who heads Hermandad Mexicana Nacional in Santa Ana, said Wednesday that a $17 million lawsuit brought by the state will not hinder any of the group's efforts to serve immigrants.

"During the fight against Robert Dornan and the Republican Party, we learned how to survive," Lopez said of a 1994 dispute in which Hermandad was accused of, but not charged with, voter fraud.

"There's nothing they can do to us that would result in collapsing Hermandad Mexicana Nacional."

The state Department of Education is suing the group to recover $7 million in grants and $10 million in punitive damages, alleging the group can't account for state money intended to provide English, citizenship and general-education classes to immigrants and that some documents showing class attendance appear fabricated.

Neither state education officials nor Lopez would release the documents in question Wednesday.

Lopez said all the group's papers are in order, but he declined to release them because of the lawsuit. Doug Stone, spokesman for the Department of Education, said the documents cannot be made public if they reveal student identities.

While many longtime allies defend Hermandad, others in the Latino community are less supportive.

"After three years (of documentation requests), any organization has had time to clear up matters," said Josie Montoya, co-founder of United Neighborhoods, an Anaheim organization that works predominantly with Latino clients on issues of housing and discrimination. "It's their responsibility to show the community that they have not misused funds. It's not enough to just say that (the allegations) are not true."

Some of Montoya's clients previously have been served by Hermandad, which has a membership of 20,000 families paying a $20 annual membership fee.

"We've heard mixed reviews," she said. "Some have been satisfied; others have complained about the services."

Immigrant Isidro Lopez of Fullerton is among those who decided to steer away from Hermandad.

He sent his father and wife to Hermandad for help to become citizens but said Hermandad wanted several hundred dollars to fill out the paperwork.

"I said, 'No way,' " Isidro Lopez said. "I can do it myself. All they wanted was the two to three hundred bucks."

But Hermandad continues to have its backers, who say there may have been inadvertent bookkeeping errors but not intentional fraud.

"We are great admirers and supporters of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional," said Amin David, chairman of Los Amigos, a Hispanic-rights group that includes business people, professionals and educators. "They take on issues that other agencies are loath to take on. ... I'm very saddened (by the lawsuit). As I understand it, they did provide an accounting of the hours."

Another supporter, Zeke Hernandez, suspects the state didn't step in earlier because of its own internal problems -- and that those problems may be prompting the state agency's suit in an effort to deflect blame.

"I take Hermandad and Nativo at their word," said Hernandez, president of the Santa Ana chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "They have built a credibility with our community. The Department of Education hasn't developed that kind of relationship with our community."

In 1998, the U.S. Attorney's Office opened an investigation into how the Education Department distributed grant money, Stone said. He said some of the documents the government requested involved documents relating to money that went to Hermandad.

"They're being pressed by the feds," Lopez said. "They in turn are trying to scapegoat someone else."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Hirst in Sacramento declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.

Hermandad is not the first group to be sued over education funds. In March, the Education Department filed a $2.8 million lawsuit against Templo Calvario of Rancho Cucamonga, accusing it of using funds for large salaries.