Updated below at 7:32 p.m. with UTLA response.
Two union-backed school board candidates are accusing UTLA President A.J. Duffy of coercing them to drop out of the race, after background checks turned up legal and financial issues.
Jesus Escandon agreed to drop out, but only after Duffy made an implicit threat against his job at the California Teachers Association, said the candidate's wife, Martha Escandon.
The other candidate, John Fernandez, refused to withdraw, and is vowing to rebut the union's allegations against him.
“They called me saying they were going to crucify me,” Fernandez said. “They wanted me to sign a statement that in essence I'm withdrawing my candidacy because of my past challenges. I wasn't going to do that.”
The developments leave United Teachers Los Angeles without candidates in three of the four L.A. Unified seats up for grabs in the March election.
John Shallman, the union's political consultant, denied that either candidate had been coerced.
“There was no pressure to get them to drop out,” Shallman said. “They have no resources. There's no reason to bully them to try to force them out of the race. It's just a friendly suggestion.”
Shallman said that both candidates had failed to be straightforward during the UTLA endorsement process.
“UTLA is simply not going to support or stand next to guys who don't uphold the values of the organization,” he said.
Fernandez said he was detained in 2001 on a commercial burglary charge, but that he was never arrested or prosecuted. He said he was with some “lady friends” at a cosmetics store, and they left without paying for some items. He did not have the money to pay for the cosmetics, and was detained by the police, he said.
“I didn't run or nothing. I stayed there,” Fernandez said. “I never went to trial.”
Fernandez also filed bankruptcy in 2003, but the case was dismissed because the judge found that Fernandez had enough income to cover his debts. Fernandez also said he received a notice because he did not pay taxes in 2004 and 2006, but that in the last week he has worked to file returns for those years.
“I lost a lot of receipts,” he said. “I had money coming back. I haven't broken any laws.”
Escandon was arrested in 1997 for driving under the influence of alcohol, his wife said.
“That was 14 years ago. He's corrected that and paid the fees,” she said.
Escandon was also arrested in his early 20s for getting in a street fight, and failed to appear in court. But his wife said that, too, had long since been resolved.
In a statement on Monday, Duffy said that Fernandez's background check had “raised serious concerns about Mr. Fernandez's truthfulness in the interview process and his qualifications and integrity to be a member of the school board.”
All the statement said about Escandon was that he had informed UTLA that he was dropping out of the race. “We wish him luck in his future endeavors,” Duffy said.
“Jesus did sign a letter that UTLA typed up for him, and they coerced him to pull out of the race,” Martha Escandon said. “He's very disappointed. They threatened him not to speak to the media and everything.”
She said her husband initially refused to withdraw, at which point Duffy told him to “talk to your employer.” He interpreted that as a threat against his job at CTA, she said.
Fernandez, a retired teacher, said he had been candid on the union's questionnaire. The form asked if he had ever been convicted of a crime, and he accurately said he had not.
“I have not had an opportunity for due process,” he said. “I haven't seen any evidence.”
Fernandez is running against Luis Sanchez in District 5. Sanchez has the backing of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Coalition for School Reform. Escandon was running in District 7 against incumbent Richard Vladovic, who is also backed by the mayor's coalition.
The UTLA board is expected to meet tonight behind closed doors to consider whether to endorse the other candidates in each race.
Update: Fernandez's bankruptcy filing does not inspire confidence in his ability to lead a multibillion-dollar organization (all sic):
“When the original schedules were prepared, I was thinking about an alleged $17,000 state tax bill, having not filed returns for four years. On resolving that and settling on $300 per month to IRS and about $100 per month to the state I put my mind to all the monthly expenses I actually have and corrected some and listed them fully and completely in my recent amendments to schedules.
“Also the trustee made so much fuss about the old Chapter 7 filing in 1987, that further confused me and kept me from correcting and adding to my legitimate expenses. I was also harried due to a dispute with an auto dealer and problem with a dealer threatening a garnishment and the state and IRS-THREATENED Garnishment, this took my mind off all the details I missed. I was rushed.
“I have a fine reputation for honesty and good teaching and handling of highschool pupils under adverse and stressful working conditions at an over crowded inner city school in Boyle heights at Roosevelt High School for the last 24 years. The stress and working conditions in over crowded, large classes, behavior problems with students, lack of space and year round schedules are too much for me in my medical conditions. One teacher at school died last Monday of a heart attack. Many times drive-by shootings at work are affecting my health to the point where I have decided to take an early retirement.”
Update 2: Escandon's UTLA questionnaire shows that he claimed he had never been convicted of a crime. He was convicted of DUI in 1997, disturbing the peace (drunk in public) in 1993, and failing to appear in court in 1994.
Update 3: This is interesting. It's a draft of a letter that UTLA wrote for Fernandez to sign. Note that even though this is essentially an internal squabble, UTLA still manages to take a shot at Villaraigosa.
Dear President Duffy,
I have decided to withdraw my candidacy for School Board.
I am withdrawing because I simply do not want this election to be about personal challenges I have had in my life. I'm sorry for not being more forthcoming. I'm human after all. That said, I understand how political campaigns work and I don't want this to distract attention from the critical issues that need to be discussed. The children, parents and teachers of LA deserve better.
The focus of this election must be about the future, not the past. Out of respect for the voters, I believe it is in everyone's best interest to ensure that this election is about putting children first. It is imperative that the dialogue of this campaign be focused on improving school safety and academic achievement, and not be about the inevitable personal political attacks from the Mayor and his “win at all costs” downtown friends.
Thank you for your understanding.
Fernandez refused to sign.