The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California on August 30, 2004 · Page 10
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The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California · Page 10

Los Angeles, California
Issue Date:
Monday, August 30, 2004
Page 10
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MN_A_15_A15_LA_1_08-30-04_mo_1_CMYK 2004:08:29:22:35:22_lwang THESTATE MONDAY,AUGUST30,2004 A15 LOSANGELESTIMES To schedule an appointment, call HEARx West today! LOCATIONS Buy One Get One FREE! SIEMENS PRISMA 2 DIGITAL HEARING AIDS With SIEMENS PRISMA2 you simply hear better SIEMENS PRISMA 2 digital hearing aids offer...  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Offer expires 9/10/04. Other product lines starting as low as $600. In-The-Ear MSRP $2,844 each Your price $1,422 each FREE BATTERIES 1 year supply of with every Siemens Prisma 2 purchase But a lawsuit filed this month by the state attorney general accused school operators of “exploiting immigrants’ dreams of a better life.” According to court records, the school used untrained teachers who taught that there are 53 states in the union, four branches of government and two houses of Congress — one for Republicans and one for Democrats. The attorney general’s suit seeks restitution for students and $32 million in penalties, charging that the program lied to students when it told them it was recognized by the state and federal governments. So far, no church officials have been implicated in the alleged fraud, though two former employees of World Mission Maranatha Evangelistic Center were named in the civil suit. Some parishioners said they were disturbed by the financial link between the church leaders they trusted and the school they believed deceived them. “With the faith we are given as children, we are taught to believe the pastor no matter what. That’s what makes us vulnerable,” said Maria Moreno, 55, a nursing assistant in Sylmar who said she took the class because she wanted to become a registered nurse. “Now I’m confused, angry. All these people use these churches to rip us off.” Josefina Roa and 20 other parishioners who took the classes have demanded an explanation from the pastor of their church in Reseda. Roa, who needed a diploma to keep her job as a teacher’s assistant with the Los Angeles Unified School District, said: “You come with your faith, and you believe, but these papers aren’t worth anything.” In an interview, the school’s director, Daniel Gossai, denied that his school misled students but said that “every pastor, every church organization where we have classes was being given certain amounts of money.” Of the average $600 per student charged for the 10-week course, church leaders were given a $75 to $175 donation, Gossai said. In addition, some churches kept the money they charged for caps and gowns, photos and school supplies. Authorities are continuing their investigation of California Alternative High School, which claims 78 locations nationwide and might have taught tens of thousands of students. Seized records confirm that some of the more than 30 churches where classes were held received payments, investigators said, but they have not reviewed records for all the churches. Investigators believe most churches were duped along with their parishioners. “That was part of the brilliant idea Gossai had — using the trust that congregants have in their church leaders,” said Rigoberto Reyes, an investigator with the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs. Officials at five churches interviewed by The Times said they accepted donations from the alternative high school as rent for the space used and to offset the costs of classes. A sixth church denied having received any money from the school. Officials at all the churches said they thought the school was providing a valuable service for parishioners. “We’re devastated that it was not a viable program,” said Diane Hernandez, an elder at Canoga Park Presbyterian Church, which discontinued the classes after being warned by a former student that the diplomas were not valid. But court documents and interviews indicate that Maranatha had a particularly close relationship with the school. Starting in 2000, the seven- branch church based in Bellflower allowed its facilities to be used for the classes. Gossai said the church played a key role in the school’s success, providing more than half of the students and receiving more than $1 million in donations in return. Moreno, the student from Sylmar, attended classes at a Maranatha church in South Gate with more than 100 other students in May 2002. In addition to $575 in tuition, she says she paid the church $50 for the class workbook, $80 to rent the required cap and gown for graduation, and $225 for optional graduation photos. She says she turned down the $25- per-person graduation meal and the graduation rings that were offered, and never had to pay the $150 make-up fee for missed classes. “The church said they didn’t keep a cent,” Moreno said. Frederico Sayer, the attorney for Maranatha’s founder and pastor, Jose Luis Soto, said the alternative school gave the church a donation of $179 for each person who graduated from the program. Sayer would not comment on the other amounts Moreno said she paid the church. Gossai says the church received a portion of the tuition fees. Sayer said the church allowed the school to offer classes for 15 months as “a community service, because it was assured that [the school] was legitimate.” The pastor and his church were “as much a victim as the students who attended these classes,” the attorney said. But in April 2002, Sayer said, the pastor ended Maranatha’s relationship with the alternative school after hearing two negative stories from graduates, and urged his son, David Soto, to start a corporation separate from the church. In the lawsuit, the attorney general has accused David Soto and his company, West Side Education Corp., of participating in the scheme with the alternative school. West Side’s director, Noel Brito, a former Maranatha employee, is also named in the suit. West Side lists Maranatha’s South Gate church as its corporate headquarters, according to court records. Sayer said the classes were held at church facilities until 2003. David Soto and Noel Brito could not be reached for comment. Sayer says Maranatha never received money from West Side Education Corp., and never thought the diplomas it offered were fraudulent. In an interview at a South Gate Burger King that has served as his office since the attorney general filed suit, Gossai described with pride how he built the school into a national chain over the last four years. The idea was hatched in 1980, when the immigrant from Guyana and former pastor said he saw a need for education in the Latino community. Acompany brochure quotes Gossai as saying: “I, as principal ...have accepted my calling from God to help the Hispanic population.” The idea for the schools lay dormant for 15 years, Gossai said, while he earned a master’s degree in business administration and two doctorates. In court records, authorities have questioned the authenticity of the two doctoral degrees. One institution, an unaccredited university in Los Angeles, denied that Gossai had attended, and the other, a university in Aruba in the Caribbean, “may be of questionable validity,” the attorney general wrote in court papers. In 2000, Gossai launched a handful of schools in Los Angeles and named himself principal. The school’s website and materials offer students an “Adult High School Diploma.” What Gossai knew but most students did not, investigators say, is that private high schools are virtually unregulated by state or federal law. Gossai says it is not deceptive to call what his school offers a diploma. “It would be illogical, unreasonable and irrational for you to believe or anyone to think that in four weeks they can get a high school diploma,” he said. Nevertheless, his students say they were sold binders that said “High School Diploma” in bold letters across the front. “He thinks he’s found the perfect loophole,” said Reyes, of the county Department of Consumer Affairs. “But there’s a law that says you can’t misrepresent what you sell.” Churches Were Paid to Recruit Pupils, State Alleges [ Schools, from Page A1 ] Los Angeles Times SCHOOL OPERATOR: Daniel Gossai admits paying churches, but denies ever misleading students. “Stuart Alexander is at fault,” defense attorney Michael Ogul told jurors after the prosecution showed the surveillancevideo. “He pulled the trigger. He killed those people.” “This is not a whodunit,” said prosecutor John Laettner. Yet four years after the crime —50 trial motions and more than 70 witnesses later — the “Sausage King” murder trial still occupies a dingy fifth-floor courtroom,where it is not expected to conclude until November. The plodding pace has been set by the government’s methodical determination to avenge the first federal and state agriculture agents to be killed in the line of duty and bythe impassioned —sometimes strident — effort by Alexander’s public defenders to keep their client off death row. According to USC law professor Michael Brennan, even when the evidence against a defendant is overwhelming, as it is in the Alexander case, the death penalty issue can make it drag on months or even years longer than a noncapital case. The trial began in March 2003. Opening arguments commenced in April of this year. “If this individual had been charged with a noncapital offense, I venture to say the trial would not have taken more than two to three months,” Brennan said. Alexander’s lead defense attorney, Alameda County Public Defender Ogul, acknowledged the main thrust of his case is to keep Alexander from being executed. “The bottom line is that we are trying to save Stuart’s life,” Ogul said. This week, jurors heard from aclose friend of one of the victims who mourned the loss of her former walking companion and froma psychologist who tested Alexander for signs of traumatic brain injury that defense lawyers contend led to the shootings. “She was just doing her job, and he killed her,” Janice Livner, 61, said of her friend, federal Food Safety and Inspection Service compliance officer Jean Hillery, a 56-year-old grandmother. “If he [Alexander] had just been cooking his meat at the right temperature, he would still be making sausage, and my friend and I would still be walking together.” Inspectors allege Alexander was smoking his pork, paprika and garlic linguiça sausages 5 degrees below thetemperatures considered safe by federal regulators. The inspectors also claimedhe was improperly labeling his products “USDA approved” and selling them illegally on the interstate market. Defense attorneys called Livner, who testified that she once made a clandestine meat buy for Hillery, to support their argument that a handful of inspectors had steadily harassed Alexander over a period of months, causing him to “snap.” Friends of Alexander say the financially strapped sausage maker had become obsessed with the state and federal regulation of his business. “It was all he could talk about,” said Rick McGregor, 59, aformer butcher and bartender at the Washington Club bar, which is in the same gray stucco building as the Santos factory. At the time of the killings, Alexander had posted a sign outside his office: “To all our great customers, the USDA (federal Department of Agriculture) is coming into our plant harassing my employees and me, making it impossible to make our great product. Gee, if all meat plants could be in business for 79 years without one complaint, the meat inspectors would not have jobs.” Alexander’s clear hostility toward inspectors was one reason the state and federal officials arrived at the plant as a group, after first notifying San Leandro police they were en route. Also killed were federal inspector Thomas Quadros, 52, and state inspector William Shaline, 57. “This is a case,” Ogul said, “of aharassed small-businessman whose entire identity was trying to fulfill his family legacy in making the best linguiça in the country.” Psychologist Dale Watson testified that a battery of tests he administered to Alexander showed“moderate brain impairment” that could have affected his ability to act rationally. Earlier, Ogul and co-counsel Jason Clay introduced scans showing what witnesses described as damage to Alexander’s brain from a series of falls and accidents in his youth and from his time as an amateur boxer. “My son is very ill,” insisted Alexander’s mother, Shirley Eckhart, a tiny white-haired woman who has attended most of the trial sessions. “He had more than five concussions, and he just lost his mind. You can’t even reason with him,” she said during an interview outside the courtroom. Laettner, an assistant U.S. attorney deputized to try the state case along with Alameda County AssistantDist. Atty. Paul Hora, dismisses the brain- damage defense, pointing to a series of e-mails in which he contends Alexander coolly discussed his desire to kill the federal and state agents, whom he described as “government slime- balls.” In one e-mail, Alexander allegedly wrote he “almost took out my machine gun and blasted those four losers, but I kept my cool as always because a smart dog always attacks from the rear.” Alexander, Laettner said, “is an individual who decided to solve his problems by killing people.” Given the nature of the crime —killing three government officials and trying to kill another — it might seem the case would attract more attention, even with the Peterson trialacross the bay in Redwood City. Hundreds line up outside the San Mateo County Courthouse to participate in the daily lottery for seatsat the Peterson trial. But on any given day, fewer than 10people, about half of whom are observers fromfederal agencies, are present in the Alameda CountyCourthouse. John Quadros, brother of one of the victims, and hiswife, Kathy, have been dismayed by the relative lack of public interest in the case compared with the Peterson trial. “There was a big splash when the murders occurred,” John Quadros said, “but it quickly dwindled.” “I’m shocked that the entire society is not horrified by this,” said Kathy Quadros. The couple attendthe trial daily and sende- mail reportsto more than 40 friends and family members. ‘Sausage King’ Trial Grinds On [ Trial, from Page A1 ] From Associated Press MIAMI — Holding its festivities here for the first time in its 21-year history, Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards was energetic and colorful — yet tame, by MTV standards. There were no wardrobe malfunctions, and Madonna didn’t kiss Britney Spears— the most- talked about moment of last year’s show. MTV was prepared, however, using a several-second tape delay for the first time. OutKast’s vivid “Hey Ya!” won four awards, including video of the year. Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” the most nominated video with six, also won four. The gritty, black-and-white images depict Jay-Z’skilling as a metaphor for his much-ballyhooed retirement, which has yet to happen. “I felt like I was trying to push the envelope,” said Jay-Z, dressed in a white suit and hat, as he accepted the award for best rap video. “That was my punishment and this is my reward.” Usher took home his first VMA awards — for best male and best dance videosfor “Yeah!” Among other winners:Best pop video went to No Doubt for “It’s My Life.” Beyonce for the second year in a row accepted best female video for “Naughty Girl.” And the award for breakthrough video went to Franz Ferdinand for “Take Me Out.” The daughters of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates were there — the Bush daughters on videotape — to urge people to vote. Twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were among the presenters. Mary-Kate, who recently was treated for what was reported to be an eating disorder, alluded to her problembefore introducing singer and reality TV star Jessica Simpson. “Thank you to everyone — you have been very supportive for the last couple of months,” she said. It was one of the night’s few subdued moments. Simpson arrived at the waterfront American Airlines Arena by water. Wearing awhite dress with a silver bodice, she came with husband and “Newlyweds” co-star Nick Lachey in a 68-foot boat. But it wasSean“P. Diddy” Combs who made the biggest entrance — in a towering yacht along with rap starMase, Naomi Campbell and Bruce Willis. In Tamer Show, MTV Gives OutKast a Big ‘Hey Ya!’ Rap act takes home four awards, including video of the year. Jay-Z ties.

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