Mountain View Voice

News - October 27, 2006

Letter alleges retirees scam

MV Whisman rocked by anonymous charges of puffed-up benefits

by Alexa Tondreau

An anonymous letter alleging fraud in the Mountain View Whisman School District sent ripples through the school's community in a week that ended with former Superintendent Eleanor Yick, implicated in the letter, leaving the country for Ireland until Thanksgiving.

Though it is not clear why she left, Yick did issue a terse statement before her departure, refuting the "irresponsible allegations" as the work of "a disgruntled employee."

Yick's statement continued, "Individual pieces of data have been taken out of context and are not as alleged."

Neither Yick nor former Assistant Superintendent Modrite Archibeque, also accused of benefits fraud, could be reached for additional comment.

The letter, which was addressed to the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, prompted Superintendent Maurice Ghysels to call for an investigation into the matter by the California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS).

Ghysels said in an e-mail that he is still "waiting for a response to my verbal and written request" from the retirement system and is not clear on the timeline of the investigation, which will include a lengthy audit of the district's retirement records.

CalSTRS says that audits of this kind consist of looking for anomalies among the final compensation reports of retired members in the district and evaluating the accuracy of compensation amounts.

In this case, the compensation in question is Yick's and Archibeque's final reported salary. The anonymous letter accuses them of rolling the cost of their district health benefits into their gross salary, a process termed "spiking." Because district retirement benefits are based on an employee's final salary, this alleged "spiking" would have authorized Yick and Archibeque to receive more compensation in retirement than they deserved. The district pays retirement benefits for five years or at age 65, whichever comes first.

The letter claims that Yick's contractual salary in her final year as superintendent was $167,200 but as reported to CalSTRS was $177,524. Accounting for the increase is the addition of health benefits to the salary and, the letter alleges, $3,500 for mileage and phone reimbursements during the year. Specifics of her retirement plan were not available to the public at press time.

Additionally, the letter alleges that Ghysels has been aware of the discrepancies since November 2005 but "deliberately has chosen not to act upon them."

Ghysels said, "I have heard of the concept of spiking, but I do not know all of the technical rules and guidelines that CalSTRS has adopted on the issue." He added, "I cannot speak to whether there is any history of spiking in this or any other district."

Board president Ellen Wheeler spoke in Ghysels defense, stating that "When our board hired Superintendent Ghysels last year, I called him 'exceptional,' and I know that already our entire community has seen how far our district can go under his leadership."

She added, "I believe that Eleanor Yick and Modrite Archibeque are ethical people."

The three-page letter, which was signed by "an Anonymous and Concerned Mountain View Whisman School District Staff Member" and sent to school officials, government representatives and local media, alleges a plan of fraud on Yick's and Archibeque's part that would "bilk CalSTRS of over $20,000 annually."

If CalSTRS does find proof of fraud, Ghysels said, "It is up to [them] to handle the issue."

Documents provided by CalSTRS show that if Yick and Archibeque are found to have deliberately spiked their reported salary, they will have to "reimburse the plan for benefit overpayments that occur because of the inconsistent reporting and may be subject to prosecution for fraud, theft or embezzlement."

Steve Lowney, who is overseeing the matter at the district attorney's office, said that for now, "We will wait until the CalSTRS audit is complete, and when it is, we will very closely look at their recommendation."

Until that time, Wheeler said, the district will "carry on for the students."

"It is they who deserve our attention and energy," she said.

E-mail Alexa Tondreau at atondreau@mv-voice.com

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