'People forewarned me," Alvin Rivera says, his usual smile suddenly darkening under his thick salt-and-pepper hair. "They said that people would forget what happened."
There is barely room for Rivera's iced coffee on a table stacked high with binders and papers — thousands of pages of legalese that have dominated Rivera's life for close to seven years. Before the lawsuits started, Rivera, a Pueblo resident, retired school administrator and community activist, led a small group calling for the ouster of Lawrence Hernandez, then the ambitious founder and CEO of Pueblo's Cesar Chavez Academy charter school.
Rivera says he and his group did much research before lobbing accusations at Hernandez, who then sued Rivera and several others for alleged defamation and making false statements. Rivera countersued, saying Hernandez was a public official using a lawsuit to try and quiet his critics.
The matters languished and everyone but Rivera settled out of court. In January 2010, Hernandez dropped the last of his claims against Rivera, saying he did not wish to incur further legal costs. A judge made a summary judgment against Rivera's countersuit, but nevertheless ordered Hernandez to pay Rivera $5,193.13.
As far as most were concerned, that was the end of it.
But over those seven years, Rivera had lost about $40,000 of retirement savings on attorney fees, even as Hernandez's salary eclipsed $250,000 a year. Hernandez became an educational celebrity, opening new schools in Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Denver, even as Rivera's own reputation was damaged.
In late 2009, Hernandez finally was pushed out amid allegations of widespread scandal. But he's more or less moved on. So have the schools.
Rivera just can't.
Day of reckoning
It's not just about the money. Far from it.
"It's been an emotional burden to my wife and I, beyond what one could imagine," says Rivera, 67. "We are approaching the twilight of our senior years and we should be enjoying a different quality of life, and this lawsuit has seriously hampered that effort."
What he wants as much as anything else is vindication. He wants a chance to prove he was telling the truth about Hernandez all along. After all, recent audits implicate Hernandez in a host of corrupt actions — many of which mirror Rivera's 2002 claims.
By last fall, it was obvious there were big problems. Budget shortfalls loomed. Questions about corruption were hitting newsstands. Hernandez had seriously upset state regulators when he temporarily shut down one of his public schools in an apparent power grab. State audits would eventually dig up more dirt, showing systematic cheating on state exams at the flagship Chavez school in Pueblo, and financial mismanagement and nepotism throughout the network.
None of this helped Rivera, because the lawsuits were resolved. So he's refiled a suit against Cesar Chavez Academy, Pueblo City Schools, and Dolores Huerta Preparatory High (another Pueblo school founded by Hernandez) seeking $40,000 in punitive damages and minor legal costs. He claims all three entities violated the law by ignoring his repeated requests for public documents.
Months before Hernandez v. Rivera ended, Rivera searched for documents supporting his claims. He hoped to prove Hernandez was illegally fighting his private lawsuit with public money, and that Hernandez twice had a lawyer on the case with a serious conflict of interest.
Eventually, Rivera got records that raised serious questions about those issues. But he didn't get them before the lawsuits ended. This despite the fact that Rivera sent multiple written requests by certified mail to various Chavez and Pueblo City School officials. When that didn't work, Rivera even tried writing Pueblo District Attorney Bill Thiebaut and state Attorney General John Suthers.
Rivera says no one even called. It was only after he contacted a judge that CCA got back to him — telling him the records had been waiting for him all along.
Rivera seriously doubts that's true. And he feels the delay may have cost him his countersuit against Hernandez. Which is why he's suing now.
But to the new leadership of Cesar Chavez Academy, it feels like Rivera is just beating a dead horse. After all, most of them remember little, if anything, about the Rivera case.
Current board president Donielle Gonzales, who has served several years, says she can't recall many details.
"The case started before I was on the board," she says. "It's been ongoing for quite some time."
Hernandez also went through several attorneys, meaning there's no single source of background information. Interestingly, one of Hernandez's longer-serving lawyers, Guadalupe Sisneros, has since been disbarred.
CCA's current attorney, Nick Gradisar, says he's given Rivera full access to schools' records. But he says Rivera doesn't seem to grasp the law, and he often wants answers to questions rather than access to records.
"We're trying to accommodate him and provide him with the documents he wants, but he has to specify which documents they are," Gradisar says. "This is new administration at the school, with new attorneys involved, so we're trying to really move forward and put this stuff behind us."
Rivera, however, says he still feels like the school is stonewalling him. He thinks they're trying to hide information from him. And he's not giving up yet. Not with $40,000 and his reputation on the line.
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