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Jury Out on Trial for Former Transportation Director

INDIO, Calif. - Jury deliberations got under way today in the trial of the former transportation director for the Coachella Valley Unified School District, who is accused of misappropriating district funds, and his longtime girlfriend, who is charged with grand theft.

Raul Portillo Lopez, 56, is accused of misappropriating more than $200,000 in district funds between 2003 and 2007. He faces 27 felony counts, including misappropriation of funds and embezzlement.

His girlfriend, Clemencia Ochoa, is charged with four felony counts of grand theft in excess of $400 for allegedly signing timesheets for overtime she never worked.
Lopez -- who worked for the district for 25 years and as transportation director for the last 10 of those years -- authorized more than $109,000 in payments for vehicle parts for district vehicle repairs that were instead used at his own auto repair shop, the prosecution alleges.

Lopez also is accused of authorizing payments of more than $75,000 to an
auto body shop for bus repairs that were never done, and giving the body shop's owner a cut of the repair money.

The body shop owner, Gregorio Zarate, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of grand theft in excess of $400 in October 2009 and was sentenced to a year in sheriff's custody and three years probation, according to court records.

Lopez is additionally accused of approving more than $17,000 in fraudulent overtime pay for Ochoa.

"They started coming up with invoices for repairs on these buses ...
Mr. Lopez would sign it, it goes to the district and Mr. Zarate gets the check, he cashes it and takes it to Mr. Lopez, " Deputy District Attorney William Robinson told the jury in his closing argument last week.
He said Lopez got 75 to 80 percent of that money and Zarate got the rest.

Robinson said Lopez sent buses to Zarate's shop even though employees told him the shop did poor work, and Lopez sent the buses to the shop behind his fleet supervisor's back.

"I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, the reason he did that was he had the agreement with Mr. Zarate," Robinson said.
A transportation expert found no evidence of repairs on buses invoiced for repair, the buses weren't taken out of service and Zarate said he didn't work on some of those buses, the prosecutor said. In one instance, the district was billed for the same parts twice, Robinson said.

He also told jurors that Lopez authorized payments for hundreds of parts ordered from NAPA, including parts for vehicles that weren't part of the district's fleet. Of several mechanics who testified, only one said he asked Lopez to order parts and received parts from Lopez, the prosecutor said.

"So what happened to them? That's the big question," Robinson said.

Lopez's attorney, Mickie Reed, said no one testified that they saw Lopez take parts from the district, or that the district paid for parts he took.

And, she said, "where is all this evidence of a lucrative side business?"

"There were no parts at my client's house, not one," she said in her closing argument last week.

She said there was no evidence Ochoa got the overtime pay and that Lopez embezzled money.

"I don't see how you can find Mr. Lopez guilty of those embezzlement charges because there's no proof anybody got that money," she said.

The defense attorney said a transportation expert hired by the district "was very biased against my client. He believed anything people would say about my client but doesn't believe other things that support him."

She said Lopez didn't hide anything, including meeting with Zarate.

"Not one person has ever, ever seen any money pass hands, ever," she said.

Reed said investigators "looked at two things -- records provided by the school district and anything negative about Mr. Lopez. They ignored everything else."

Lopez started with the district in 1981 as a mechanic and worked various jobs in the transportation department. He was promoted to director in 1997, and was responsible for 100 employees and a nearly $7 million budget, Robinson said.

In the fall of 2006, district officials suspected the transportation department wasn't being run efficiently and hired a consultant, who "concluded there was mismanagement at the very least," Robinson said.

Lopez was put on administrative leave in 2007. District officials couldn't be reached to discuss his current status.-

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