The food services director at the Lawndale elementary school district was arrested earlier this month and is facing felony charges for allegedly accepting kickbacks from a restaurant that sold pizza to the district for school lunches, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.
Arturo Nuno, who pleaded not guilty, is accused of taking 50 cents for every pizza sold to the school district by the restaurant from Oct. 1, 2010, to July 31, 2012, said Jean Guccione, spokeswoman for the District Attorney's Office.
All told, Nuno is accused of accepting about $10,000 in cash, she said Friday.
News of the Dec. 19 arrest came as a shock to employees of the school district, which has won several awards and grants for health, wellness and nutrition since the 31-year-old Nuno took the post about five years ago.
Ellen Dougherty, superintendent of the Lawndale School District, said Nuno was placed on paid leave as soon as district officials learned he is being accused of engaging in "white collar criminal activity." She spoke highly of him on Friday.
"He's a stellar employee, and has been an amazing young man," Dougherty said. "He's a team player, he jumps in and helps when needed. We have a great team at our district and he's been an intricate part of it."
Nuno was released on $100,000 bail the day after his arrest.
Reached on his cellphone Friday, Nuno declined to comment.
According to the DA's Office, Nuno periodically stopped by the restaurant to pick up envelopes containing between $200 and $700 in cash. Guccione said the school district paid the establishment $6.50 per pizza, and that Nuno demanded 50 cents of that amount.
The DA's Office has charged him with four counts of felony bribery.
Guccione on Friday did not have information on the name of the pizzeria in question but said it closed down sometime after July 31. A complaint filed with the Superior Court of California says he accepted bribes from a man named Robert Bonilla. Sources close to the case say the restaurant was located near the intersection of 153rd Street and Hawthorne Boulevard in Lawndale.
Dougherty said Nuno has been highly instrumental in improving the district's nutrition standards. For instance, he spruced up school cafeterias to make them more appealing to the students, and headed up a 40-person wellness committee. One of many results: All seven elementary schools have recently begun selling fruit for a quarter as a snack for students. In the past, the schools sold chips or junk food during snack time.
In the summer of 2011, representatives from the Lawndale district met former President Bill Clinton as a result of winning an award from a program co-founded by the William J. Clinton Foundation. Called the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, the program recognizes schools that revamp their meal service and physical activity programs to make the schools healthier.
Despite the accolades, Nuno's name came up in a minor controversy last school year. In April 2011, members of the classified union representing custodians, cafeteria works secretaries and others cried foul when the Lawndale school board approved a 17 percent pay hike for Nuno, bringing his salary to $94,531 from $80,651.
At the time, the employees complained they hadn't received a raise in four years. District officials countered that the boost was a "salary adjustment," not a raise, extended to Nuno because he was underpaid on the salary schedule. The adjustment brought his salary in line with that of other directors in the district.
Carl Williams, president of the classified union, said he was disheartened by the latest news.
"Everyone is innocent until proven guilty," he said. "We trust the district will handle the situation so it is in the best interest of the students and the district and the community as a whole. It's really one of those weird things where you just have to wait and see."
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Staff Writer Larry Altman contributed to this article