A day after Maria Elena Serna resigned from the San Joaquin Delta College Board and pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor offense of doublebilling the college, her attorney characterized the charge as a technicality and said it may have been politically motivated.
Serna, 67, received three years probation in San Joaquin County Superior Court on Monday. The Lodi resident "double-dipped" by asking and receiving reimbursements from Delta and the Community College League of California for travel costs and other expenses. The total amount of the reimbursements were $1,642.10.
Her lawyer, Al Ellis said the case was a technical violation of the law.
"She never had any intention to cheat anyone. … This is the same woman to march with Cesar Chavez, and after he died, she started a scholarship named after him for the college," Ellis said.
During the time Serna received double reimbursement, Ellis said she was dealing with her husband's death and recovering from back surgery.
He also said the college's decision to take the case to the authorities may have been motivated by politics.
"I think there are political issues involved," Ellis said.
Contacted at her home, Serna declined to comment and directed all questions to Ellis.
In her resignation letter, Serna said she is resigning on the advice of her physician.
She thanked the students, faculty, administrators and other board members for her 18 years on the board.
"I look forward to observing the 'ideals' that I have espoused being carried out by our new board," she wrote.
Serna is the latest departure of veteran trustees from the board. Several incumbents lost their bid for re-election in November, and Dan Parises, one of the longest-serving trustees, opted to retire rather than seek re-election.
On Monday, Parises praised Serna for what she has done for the school, including her work on the Cesar Chavez Community Leadership Award.
"I've known her for 18 years; she has high integrity and is honest … maybe she wasn't paying attention," he said.
Delta spokesman Greg Greenwood reiterated on Tuesday that the college sent the case to the Stockton Police because the college will not tolerate elected officials pocketing money, no matter how small.
"From the college's perspective, this wasn't an accident," he said. "This is the college trying to ensure we are being responsible to the community."
The board has 60 days to either make a provisional appointment or hold a special election to replace Serna. Greenwood said that he did not know how much an election would cost. The board meets today to swear-in the four newly elected trustees. Its meeting on Dec. 16 is the first board meeting where the group will be able to vote on action items.
According to a report by the Stockton Police Department, questions first arose about Serna's reimbursement claims when Valerie Stewart-Green, an administrative assistant in the president's office, said Serna said she received a reimbursement from the league. Stewart-Green thought this was odd because reimbursements from the league are supposed to go directly to the college. She called the league and found out that Serna specifically requested the reimbursements be sent to her home address.
Other incidents that raised questions at the college were also detailed in the report.
Delta College Trustee Janet Rivera recounted when she and Serna attended a conference in San Jose in November 2007. Rivera was driving herself and Serna to the conference when Serna asked her to not tell Delta College officials they were riding together. When Rivera said she already told Delta President and Superintendent Raul Rodriguez, Serna reportedly said, "Oh shoot, I was going to claim the mileage."
In another incident, Reen Perez, an administrative assistant in Rodriguez's office, said Serna tried to collect money for a meal Rodriguez paid for with his college credit card.
At the Delta Associated Student Body Government office, Navid Shaghaghi, the president and chairman of the interclub council, said he thinks the way the administration handled the problem is reflective of its inability to work with people on campus.
"They didn't want to solve the problem. They just saw a great opportunity to get rid of this person," he said.
Editor's Note: This story was updated at 12:35 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10 to correct the fact that Dan Parises retired from his position on the board and did not resign.