SAISD Board Trustee Olga Hernandez (D6). Photo by Scott Ball.
Olga Hernandez (left) is a former San Antonio Independent School District trustee now on trial on wire fraud and bribery charges. Credit: Scott Ball/San Antonio Report

Former San Antonio Independent School District board member Olga Hernandez took the stand in her own defense Monday, the final day of testimony in her federal trial on charges of fraud and bribery.

In nearly two and a half hours on the witness stand, Hernandez testified that trips to Las Vegas casinos, Spurs playoff basketball tickets, cash campaign contributions, and a $500 gift card she received from an insurance broker and his associates were gifts given out of friendship and not to influence her vote on insurance contracts with the school district.

The former board member from SAISD’s District 6 is charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to solicit and accept bribes. Hernandez, who resigned from the school board in February following her indictment and arrest, could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

The gift-givers – Samuel Mullen and his former employee Joshua Cerna – pleaded guilty for their role in the conspiracy to pay kickbacks to William Haff, a former consultant with Wortham Insurance and Risk Management. Wortham was employed by SAISD and other local school districts to help select insurance coverage for employees.

In exchange, Mullen – former chief financial officer and co-owner of Mullen Pension and Benefit Group – received inside information on district requests for proposals. In pleading guilty to his role in the scheme, Haff admitted to federal prosecutors in March 2016 that he received $64,584 from Mullen.

With more than 30 supporters in attendance in the federal courtroom, Hernandez repeatedly asserted that her votes on insurance policies during her 11-year board tenure were based on SAISD staff recommendations and not to steer business to Mullen’s clients.

“I’m not happy to be here, but I’m anxious to give my side of the story,” Hernandez began.

She talked about becoming friends with Mullen and his wife Diane, the former CEO of Mullen Pension and Benefit Management. She also befriended Cerna and his wife, saying they had children the same ages as her grandchildren and they would invite each other over to celebrate the children’s birthdays.

Over the next several years following her 2006 election to the SAISD board, Hernandez and her husband Frank were treated to casino trips, Spurs tickets, and meals. Hernandez also received a $500 jewelry gift card and campaign contributions that she didn’t report until after learning about the FBI’s investigation.

William Reid IV, Hernandez’s attorney, asked if she ever thought the Cernas or Mullens had ulterior motives. “Not until now,” she said.

Hernandez admitted during her testimony that she failed to disclose on campaign finance reports that the Mullens paid for a $960 mailer to her constituents. She also said she failed to report a $500 cash campaign contribution from Cerna two days before her re-election in 2015.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Roomberg revisited those points during cross-examination and pointed out that Hernandez only reported those contributions after her initial meeting with FBI agents. Under questioning from Roomberg, Hernandez said she knew Mullen’s company was earning commissions for the insurance contracts she approved. But she repeatedly disagreed that the trips, tickets, and gifts were benefits to her in exchange for votes, instead saying they were gifts from friends.

Closing arguments will be presented Tuesday in the jury trial before U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez.

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Sean M. Wood

Sean M. Wood spent 19 years as a print journalist, 17 of those as a business writer, before leaving to make a living. He still has a storytelling itch that needs scratching.