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Payments to L.A. Trade-Tech College foundation director probed

February 16, 2012 | 10:10 am

A foundation created to help needy students at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College is under scrutiny by the college district and the district attorney's office over payments to its executive director.

Rhea Chung received thousands of dollars in bonuses, membership fees at exclusive private clubs and a $1,500 monthly car allowance as executive director of the Trade-Tech Foundation, according to interviews and records reviewed by The Times.

Problems at the foundation sparked two internal audits by the Los Angeles Community College District, as well as an inquiry by the Public Integrity Division of the L.A. County district attorney's office, which is looking into whether any funds at the foundation were misappropriated.

The college district placed Chung on administrative leave Jan. 17, and officials said they were also looking into allegations that foundation checks were forged. Officials did not identify the target of that probe.

On top of her $113,460 salary under her contract with the district, Chung drew a $22,000 "performance bonus" last year from the foundation, something not allowed by district policy. She received an additional $22,000 to oversee the Open Academy youth orchestra, a separate legal entity primarily funded by the foundation.

The Trade-Tech Foundation paid Chung's $5,000 initiation fee at the California Club in downtown Los Angeles. It also paid for other membership fees for her, including the L.A. Philharmonic at $2,300 a year and the Central City Assn. at $8,000 annually. The foundation covered more than $9,000 for Chung's golf outings in the last two years. Records show she played on Christmas Day and the Fourth of July.

In an interview at the California Club, Chung denied any wrongdoing and said all her expenses and bonuses were approved by the foundation board and college president.

She defended her golf outings and club memberships, saying they helped her meet business leaders who might make donations to the foundation. Chung maintained that Trade Tech President Roland "Chip" Chapdelaine had been informed at "every step of the way" and had signed her checks.

"I'm an individual who's been working hard at these projects that [Chapdelaine] asked me to do. We made a mark as an organization," she said. "It's too bad that he doesn't see the value of the work that's been done."

Chapdelaine said he had, on occasion, signed checks for foundation expenses but that he had not authorized Chung's car allowance, bonus pay or extra pay for overseeing the youth orchestra.

The foundation's board authorized the car allowance in April, but some members of the board said they were not aware of the other extra pay until recently.

An internal audit by the L.A. Community College District found that it was a conflict of interest for Chung to run both the orchestra and the foundation, because it could appear that she was more interested in the orchestra's financial health than in the foundation's. The auditors also suggested that the foundation should stop paying the car allowance and bonus.

College and foundation officials said the payments had ceased, and the board cut ties with the youth orchestra.

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-- Abby Sewell

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