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Exclusive: Jose Huizar Awarded High School Students Tens Of Thousands of Dollars in Scholarships, Some Never Received a Penny

Sarai Gomez was a freshman at Theodore Roosevelt High School in 2013 with a dream of attending a four-year university. As a first-generation Mexican American, she understood that she would be responsible for getting herself to and through college.  “My parents know nothing about the college process and how financial aid works. So I kind of had to go out of my way to find resources and find scholarships to apply to,” Gomez said. 

Sarai grew up in Boyle Heights, a predominantly Latino neighborhood with a tight-knit community on L.A.’s east side. It’s a place where you can get street tacos at almost any time of the day and admire street murals on nearly every corner. 

Sarai was seen as a young leader in her community. She was chosen to speak at a neighborhood event hosted by Jose Huizar. Yes, that Huizar, the councilmember who represented that neighborhood and is currently awaiting trial for allegedly leading a sprawling city hall corruption scandal—one of the biggest this city has ever seen. But at the time, no one knew about Huizar’s alleged corruption.

Sarai remembers her first impressions of the council member. She perceived him as “a nice guy,” a person that gave back to the community. Like Sarai, he grew up in Boyle Heights and knew the struggles of being raised in a low-income neighborhood. He excelled in school, and as a Mexican immigrant, he had to navigate the college process independently. His experience reflected a lot of what Sarai and other students went through. He was relatable.

During their conversation at that neighborhood event, Huizar asked Sarai where she was from, how she liked high school, and he asked if she had any potential college plans—typical get-to-know-you questions. “And then he was like, ‘Oh, I have a scholarship you should apply to it senior year’,” Sarai said. Throughout the rest of her time in high school, Sarai was determined to apply for his scholarship, “And I did.” 

Four years later, as a senior in 2016, Sarai vividly remembers the moment she found out she’d won the scholarship. One of the college counselors pulled her out of class and told her privately that she was one of the winners. At that moment, she contained her excitement, but she burst into tears the second she walked back into the empty school hallway.

“I literally started crying because it was my first scholarship, and oh my god, it's just so competitive, like everybody applies for it… I couldn't believe it,” Sarai said. 

Sarai didn’t know it then, but she was about to climb Mt. Everest to get her promised scholarship money. 

The scholarship Sarai won is called the Jose Huizar Excellence in Education Scholarship. Huizar started it, and he would select students from Roosevelt and its rival school – James A. Garfield High School. The selected students lived in East L.A. and Boyle Heights. They were from Latino immigrant backgrounds, excelled in school, and were passionate about their communities. After releasing Smoke Screen: The Sellout last year—a deep dive into Huizar’s alleged sleaziness throughout his time in office—L.A. TACO received a tip from a listener. The tipster told us that some of the scholarship recipients never received the scholarship money that they were promised. So, we decided to look into it.

For the last five months, we interviewed 14 former students and obtained hundreds of emails and dozens of financial documents to piece together what happened. We also attempted to speak to guidance counselors, principals, and accountants at the two high schools.

We learned that the experiences of getting the scholarship vary from student to student. Some told us they only got a portion of the money, while others had to fight for months to get the total amount. Only four students said they received their money right away without any roadblocks. For years, past scholarship winners and students have aired their frustrations on social media. One person even tweeted at Huizar directly in 2020 after he was indicted for corruption, “RUN THEIR SCHOLARSHIP CHECKS, idiot!” 

Once Huizar himself tweeted back to another scholarship-related tweet. 

“What do you mean? Who didn’t get their funds?” Huizar tweeted. For years, the scholarship ceremony happened at halftime. When Huizar would parade the Excellence in Education scholarship winners down onto the football field during the annual East L.A. Classic game—a showdown between Garfield and Roosevelt. 

Huizar would call up students onto the field one-by-one—from both schools and present each winner with one of those giant game show checks, ranging from $500 up to $1000. In 2016, Sarai was the first awardee to be called onto the field from the Roosevelt side. Her family stood and cheered from the stands as the stadium speakers echoed her name. She paced to the 50-yard line, stared back at the massive crowd, and waited for her classmates to join her.

“We were given these huge like checks in the middle of the field, and you were able to see them from the stands,” Sarai said. 

In 2017 Huizar delivered a hopeful community message during a Spanish interview at the ceremony. 

 “I must say that college is accessible,” Huizar delivered a hopeful message in Spanish during an interview at the 83rd East Side Classic in 2017. “A lot of times, a lot of parents, they’re worrying if it’s going to cost a lot or not… but there are a lot of scholarships, a lot of help… They shouldn’t say that college can’t be paid for.” (“También las que debo decir que el colegio es accesible… muchas veces muchos padres, quienes pendientes va a costar mucho o no, … pero hay muchas becas, mucha ayuda. Hay que no decir que no se pueda pagar por el colegio.”)

Sarai got her big game show check, but months later, when she was getting ready to graduate, she hadn’t received any updates about the scholarship. No word from her college counseling office about how to collect the money; nothing. Sarai started to suspect something weird was going on with the scholarship. So she started looking for answers.

Sarai remembers reaching out to Raul Mata, a college advisor at Roosevelt. “I tried to speak to Mata and be like, ‘Hey, like, so I'm heading off to college, can I get my check now?’ And he was like, ‘Oh, they're not in yet, and you're going to have to wait a little bit more.’” 

He also told Sarai that Huizar’s office was already having trouble processing scholarship checks from previous years during the visit.

Nevertheless, Sarai left for college, and in December 2017, about a year after she was awarded the scholarship, Sarai came home for winter break. She still hadn’t received any notice from Mata or the school about her payment status. So, she and her mom took matters into their own hands and went to Huizar’s office to get answers. They met with Huizar’s assistant, who told them they could not process the rest of the funds, but reassured them the money would eventually come and encouraged them to keep in touch. 

A couple of months later, in April 2018, Sarai still hadn't received the money. Instead, she got a letter from Huizar’s office signed by Huizar. The letter reads, “Dear Scholarship Recipient…I wanted to take the time to reiterate my commitment to this scholarship, to reassure you that my Office is working hard to have the funds released to each student as soon as possible.” Then it concludes with, “You have earned this scholarship as an exemplary student, and under no circumstance will it be revoked from you.”

While Sarai was off at college, her mom kept going back to Mata’s office to get her daughter’s money. Later that fall, Mata threw up his hands and told Sarai’s mom to pick up a check for half of what was promised  – $500 of $1,000 – at the school’s finance desk. This was in October 2018, almost two years since Sarai was awarded the scholarship. Mata did not respond to our requests for an interview. And the principles of Garfield and Roosevelt also declined to comment.

Hundreds of emails obtained by L.A. TACO and Neon Hum Media show that behind the scenes, things looked messy.

Just a month before Sarai walked out onto the field to accept her game show-sized check, Roosevelt staff had been emailing back and forth with Huizar’s office about the scholarship funds. “We are holding scholarships from students currently at universities because we have not received the funds from the previous scholarship commitment,” Mata wrote in a 2016 email.

The emails make it clear that, at times, there wasn’t enough money to cover the amounts that had already been promised to students. Like, in 2016, when one Huizar deputy realized that the office still owed $500 to a student who'd received the scholarship five years prior, in 2011. “How have we been able to issue them money if they had an outstanding amount from back then,” Rocio Hernandez, Huizar’s Boyle Heights field deputy at the time, wrote in an email.

A clear answer to Hernandez's question never came. And that $500 wasn't the only outstanding scholarship money.

There was also at least one instance of scholarship funds being mismanaged. In November 2016, when Sarai and others were awarded scholarships, emails show that five thousand dollars in scholarship funds were “incorrectly diverted” to Marcos Garcia, a Christian youth sports camp coach. In the same email, Mata says that the $5,000 payment to Garcia was approved by “someone at LA City Council named George Esparza.” Esparza, a former aide to Huizar, is currently awaiting trial as a co-defendant in the government’s city hall corruption case. Around that same time in 2016, Mata, the school counselor at Roosevelt, raised the issue in an email to a city representative.

“[Students] have been patiently waiting and contacting me regarding the amount and are nearing their next semester charges, so I would like to be able to provide their scholarship in a timely manner.” 

Little of this was communicated to Sarai and other students at the time. 

According to city finance records and contracts, some of the money was there. Between 2009 and 2011, Huizar’s officeholder account covered $3,000 in payments described as “scholarships.”Between 2012 and 2018, we found that more than $55,000 was devoted to the Jose Huizar Excellence in Education Award. From what we know, at least $44,000 came from the city’s general fund, with most of that money going to the Garfield Scholarship Trust.

Jose Huizar did not respond to questions related to this story or the “Smoke Screen: The Sellout” podcast. Tracking down the money behind Huizar’s scholarship was not easy, and we still don’t have a complete accounting of how the scholarship was funded and who got paid out.

Other council members who have set up scholarships for students in their districts have been more transparent about the funding sources. For example, former Councilmember Richard Alarcon awarded the Ernani Bernardi Scholarship to 30 students from Council District 7. The first page laid out the origin of the scholarship, which was “established as an endowment fund out of the Lopez Canyon Trust Fund.” It also included a formal explanation of why it was set up, its history, how much money would be awarded in total, and what it aims to address in the community. We could not locate a comparable city document for the Jose Huizar Excellence in Education Scholarship.

Some students say that the poorly-managed scholarship opportunity ultimately led to not getting their promised college funds, placing a burden on them and their families. And for those that did get their money, most students we spoke to had to fight for it.

My family is pretty upset. I think they're more upset than me,” said Sarai. “It's like a bad representation of our community and our culture.”

Some of the students we spoke to said Huizar’s alleged corruption has left ripples of mistrust and disappointment in the communities they feel he eventually sold out. For them, his actions may have deepened the already strained relationship between those living in CD 14 and the local government.  What stuck with Sarai was the letter Huizar sent her during her first year of college. In it, he promised that the total amount would be given to the students, but even after five years of fighting to get the money, she’s only received half. 

“I think those words are the ones that still haunt me today. Like, ‘under no circumstance will we revoke your scholarship,’” Sarai recited from memory. “It's sad.” Sarai is on track to graduate from UC Berkeley next year with a Bachelor's degree in Applied Math and Data Science. She plans to use her degree to start a career in public service. “I want to be a leader in my community and just want to go back to L.A.,” Sarai said.

While she settles into the next chapter of her life, Huizar will likely be preparing for a trial that could determine his freedom for the foreseeable future. After years of delays, the former city council member and a few of his alleged co-conspirators are set to face a jury in February 2023.

Carla Green, Mariah Castañeda. and Stephanie Serrano contributed to this story.

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