Meet Michael Hanson’s Fixer
How a Culture of Secrecy Came to Rule Fresno Unified and Cloak Wrongdoing
As the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office dig deeper into the public lies and secret deals of Supt. Michael Hanson, they are sure to come across the tracks of Miguel Arias, the right hand who has stuck beside Hanson through thick and thin and proudly describes himself as the superintendent’s “fixer.”
Arias has worn many official hats for Hanson, from head of constituent services to executive director of Parent University to his now second stint as the district’s $130,000-a-year communications chief. Titles aside, Arias has been called upon time and again by Hanson to do the covert work of Fresno Unified.
Need to hide the district’s alarming rates of truancy and dropouts from the public? Call Arias. Need to dig up dirt on Hanson’s critics or intimidate them at their places of employment? Call Arias. Need to misappropriate public funds and funnel the money to a powerful Hmong family as a way to buy political favor for the superintendent—and then cover up the whole scheme? Arias is your man.
He has performed his duties exceedingly well. Even amid the federal investigation examining the ties that bind Supt. Hanson, Asst. Supt. Ruthie Quinto and Richard Spencer of Harris Construction, school board members seem fully prepared to follow Hanson right over the cliff—and take the school district with them. If their fidelity to Hanson is indeed blind, it is partly a result of the tireless work of Arias.
“I’m the guy who knows where all the bodies are buried,” Arias boasts to co-workers and others. “I’m the guy who cleans up all of Hanson’s messes.”
That a man of such talents has now become the chief communicator for Fresno Unified isn’t as odd as it might seem. In recent years, the school district has taken on the furtive tics of Nixon’s White House during its most paranoiac days. Public information of the most basic kind is hidden from the public. Public meetings, or what should be public meetings, are held in private. The attorney who is supposed to be representing the interests of the school board, and therefore the public, actually serves more as private consigliere to Hanson, furthering the district’s cult of secrecy. Pre-construction contracts that have steered tens of millions of dollars in projects to Harris Construction are hidden from the public. Fresno Unified even lies to the appellate court about the existence of these contracts.
Such is Hanson’s compulsion to conceal, a kind of pathological disdain for transparency, that he and his most trusted staff began using a special cell phone app called Cyber Dust as a way to guarantee secret communications among them, sources say. Shielded by Cyber Dust’s encryption, messages are there one moment and gone the next. “Messages never hit a hard drive,” Cyber Dust’s webpage boasts. “So when they disappear, they disappear for good… Gone forever.” For the past year, Hanson has asked members of his inner cabinet—Ruthie Quinto and Kim Mecum among them—to add Cyber Dust to their cell phones. At least one administrator refused Hanson’s request, expressing concerns about the illegality of a superintendent of schools and his top staff conducting public business in a manner untraceable to the public. Such shared secret messaging among Hanson and his cabinet —if used extensively—could complicate the FBI’s efforts to uncover wrongdoing at Fresno Unified.
The image of a superintendent of schools running one of the largest educational systems in the state in the manner of a CIA spy or Mafia don is, of course, deeply troubling. Why would Hanson go to such extremes to keep parents, teachers, all of us, in the dark if he didn’t have something major to hide? But Hanson’s embrace of Cyber Dust is wholly consistent with his aberrant behavior over the past decade, right down to the speeding tickets he never bothered to pay for even as his vehicle was being impounded. It’s been ten years of lying—lying about test scores, dropouts, truants, the achievement gap. Every time he’s cornered, he comes up with a new “data dashboard” that promises that reform is just around the corner. But reform isn’t around the corner. We have watched one of the worst performing—and now it must be said corrupt—school districts in California take root among us. What added shame must occur before the citizens of Fresno, the mayor and other elected officials, the conservative business community, the small progressive left, the Fresno Bee and other local media, awaken to the sorry parade of Fresno Unified and its unclothed emperor?
Whether Arias was among Hanson’s Cyber Dust faithful is too early to tell. But no one inside the superintendent’s inner circle prides himself more as “the keeper of the secrets” than Arias. His ability to remain discrete has landed him one plum job after the other—and the status of someone protected. His promotion earlier this month to communications chief came in the wake of formal complaints of hostile work environment filed against Arias while he directed Parent University. The internal complaints by two female supervisors, one an African American and the other Hmong, date back to 2013-2014 and include intimidation, angry verbal outbursts, inappropriate language and work assignments that demeaned the two women.
An internal investigation confirmed several of the allegations, sources said, but Arias refused to modify his behavior. To remedy the situation, one of the harassed staffers had to be transferred from Parent University to the district’s communications office, where she has worked for the past two years.
Even so, earlier this month, Hanson named Arias to the post of communications chief, where he would once again oversee the victim. In elevating Arias, Hanson kept the internal investigation hidden from the school board, which then voted 7-0 to approve the promotion. Whether the victim will now be transferred to another position away from Arias remains to be seen.
The incidents at Parent University aren’t the first time Arias has demeaned or intimidated staff. Those who have worked alongside him say he’s always on the lookout for personal slights, and he perceives any criticism, even the most benign, as racism. “He’ll blow up out of nowhere,” said one co-worker. “All of a sudden he’ll be storming up and down the halls talking to himself. His language is very inappropriate. ‘I’m an angry Mexican. Don’t mess with me. I know where all the bodies are buried.’”
One incident still shared among current and formers staffers occurred during a meeting in which Arias accidentally spilled a cup of water. He turned to his Latina assistant and said, “You’re my Mexican momma. Now go clean it up.’’’ She couldn’t tell if he was serious or joking and left the spill for Arias to wipe up. Current and former district employees who have worked closely with Arias say he has no filter in his interactions with people and introduces himself to parents and other constituents as “Mr. Hanson’s fixer.” “He’s full of himself,” said the former district staffer. “Because he knows things, secret things, he walks around like he’s untouchable.”
At every turn, Arias’ behavior has been condoned, and rewarded, by Hanson. It must help that the superintendent himself has a long record of browbeating and berating top female administrators during staff meetings, many of whom have have left the district in psychologically abused states, comparing themselves to battered women. I have interviewed two of these women, who agreed to tell their stories publicly as a warning to other female administrators being wooed by Hanson to join Fresno Unified. But in each recounting, the women started to waver and break down and then changed their minds, asking that their stories remain private. “We were all abused,” said one of them, trying to explain the mix of anger and shame that has come to define them as a group. “We lost our self esteem, lost our confidence. He destroys you.”
Hanson doesn’t limit his abusive behavior to staff. He has exhibited similar temper tantrums when dealing with a succession of female reporters at the Bee who cover education. As each reporter has come and gone, they have told the same story of his full-throated tirades at them for perceived negative press coverage. And yet the Bee, whether too prideful or too timid, has chosen never to report on the superintendent’s outbursts. Thus the public doesn’t know the real Michael Hanson.
Over the past five years, as I’ve delved into Hanson’s run of the school district, earning for myself the mixed reputation of Fresno Unified’s public scold, I have returned again and again to the handiwork of Arias.
Before getting into the details, I need to publicly disclose that I did battle with Arias in 2011 and 2012 during his first go-around as communications chief. For several months, he blocked attempts by me and then my journalism students at Fresno State to obtain basic public documents. We began to refer to Arias as the “chief of dis-information” when we learned that the documents he did release to us misrepresented the district’s truancy rates by half. We discovered the lie after a few brave data processors at two of the district’s high schools ran the real numbers. Confronted with the true count—nearly two-thirds of students at Fresno High, for instance, were habitual truants with scores of absences a semester—Arias fumed.
“Where did you get those numbers from?” he demanded.
“We got them from our sources,” I said.
“I need to know who your sources are. They just committed a crime.”
“A crime? You consider handing over factual information to a journalist a ‘crime?’”
“It’s a crime to spend staff time doing unauthorized work. You need to give back those documents.”
Of course, we had no intention of giving them back. In the days that followed, Arias conducted a kind of information witch hunt, questioning staff at several high schools to figure out who might have processed and printed out the truancy data for us. As a result, our pipeline to other real numbers—numbers that would show how deeply broken Fresno Unified is—dried up. We did the dropout stories anyway, and the Bee ran them for four days straight on the front page. Thanks to our reporting, Hanson was forced to put together a graduation/truancy task force that finally began to acknowledge the crisis.
Among the questions we were posing to Fresno Unified at the time concerned allegations that Hanson had directed thousands of dollars in public funds—a hidden expenditure—to help pay for the Feb. 2011 funeral and memorial of Hmong Gen. Vang Pao. In a June, 2011, meeting that brought together Arias and me and our attorneys, the exchange went as follows:
“Did Fresno Unified give funds for the funeral of Vang Pao?” I asked.
Silence from Arias and then an angry look.
“It’s a straightforward question? I’d appreciate a straightforward answer.”
“The answer is the school district has no documents that show that we gave money to the funeral of Vang Pao,” Arias said.
“Okay, so you have no documents. That’s precisely my point. A document wouldn’t exist if the funds were given to the funeral in a silent, off-the-books way.”
“There is no record to show we gave money to the funeral.”
“I get it, there’s no record. But that doesn’t mean the funds weren’t given.”
An exasperated Arias deferred to Peter Denno, the attorney who represents Fresno Unified on Public Records Act requests.
“If no document exists, you can conclude that no payment took place,” Denno said.
Angry over our exposes in the Bee, Hanson struck back. He instructed Arias to go after my part-time job at the university. Arias wrote a formal letter of complaint to the dean of arts and humanities at Fresno State, alleging that I and my students were endangering the safety of Fresno Unified “students and staff” in our “zeal to obtain information.” Needless to say, the dean’s inquiry did not substantiate his accusation.
I left it there with Arias, even as he accused me of being a racist. I tried to see the context of his defensiveness. I had spent half my life as a writer documenting the struggles and successes of Latinos in the valley. I was the journalist who first told the tale of the boy runners of McFarland High to the outside world. Like them, there was much to admire in Arias’ rising. He was two years old when he said goodbye to Mexico and crossed the border with his mother Teresa. He grew up in the fields of Mendota picking melons and other row crops alongside his sister and five brothers. From Mendota High, Arias went to Fresno State, where he earned a degree in criminology. It was in 2003, working on the staff of then-Rep. Calvin Dooley, that he became a U.S. citizen.
But somewhere along the way, Arias lost his compass. How did a young man with such promise turn into a mender for a boss as narcissistic as Michael Hanson? Now, as the feds are investigating allegations of public corruption inside Fresno Unified, Arias’ role in the Vang Pao funeral funds has come into fuller light. It shows he played a much bigger part than simply helping conceal the expenditure after the fact.
The death of Vang Pao at 81 was no mere death and his funeral in early Feb. 2011 was no simple affair. For more than a half century, the general had served as military and spiritual leader of the Hmong in their native Laos and here in their valley of exile. Vang Pao was the closet thing the Hmong had to a king, right down to the dun he exacted from his people.
Hmong funerals in general are elaborate rites played out over three days and nights of high-pitched music and mourning, communal feasting and the burning of paper money. Befitting his status, Vang Pao’s funeral consumed six days and nights and began with fighter planes roaring across the sky. Tens of thousands of mourners—Hmong mothers, fathers, children, grandmothers in eggplant-colored native garb and old soldiers in military fatigues who fought beside him in Laos in their secret CIA-led war—gathered to remember their hero. It all took place in downtown Fresno, America’s capital of the expatriated Hmong nation.
The city of Fresno, in an unusual and little examined decision, gave the general’s family the full use of the city-owned Exhibit Hall for eight days. The family paid for chairs, tables and staff time but the rental of the building itself, which totaled $75,000, according to City Hall sources, was donated to the family. Such a large gift from the city to a family and ethnic community may very well have required a vote from the City Council. But the matter never came up in an official way. Blong Xiong, the Hmong city councilman, acted as the point man. The gift, and the lack of public oversight, was a sure sign of the political power the Hmong had accrued over their 35-year-long resettlement in Fresno, and how that support might shine kindly on our new mayor, Ashley Swearengin.
The Hmong had their very own member on the school board: Tony Vang, who represented the McLane High School district. Vang, who had lost his father early in life and regarded the general as his “second father,” was chosen by the family to serve on the funeral committee. In his capacity as “program consultant,” Trustee Vang needed a favor from Supt. Hanson. Might Fresno Unified help cover the printing costs of 35,000 full-color “memorial” programs and 60,000 two-color “daily” programs?
Like all long-tenured superintendents, Hanson knew the power of his district’s purse and what it took to keep seven board members happy—and loyal to him. For most of his ten-year reign, the votes had gone 7-0 or 6-1 in his favor. In other words, he’s done the self-serving part of his job quite well. He’s kept it for longer than almost any other superintendent in Fresno history.
Many back-and-forth favors had cemented the bond between Hanson and Trustee Vang. But underwriting the costs of the memorial programs presented a problem. Taking school funds and funneling them to a funeral, even the funeral of someone as legendary as Gen. Vang Pao, was not a proper use of government dollars. This was different than the city giving an in-kind donation of $75,000 for use of an Exhibit Hall that the city owned. The memorial programs weren’t going to be used as part of any Fresno Unified curricula or educational material for students. They were keepsakes for family, friends and other mourners.
So underwriting their costs required some creative thinking. It required some distance between Supt. Hanson and Trustee Vang and the money. It required a man who could keep a secret.
In walked the fixer.
Miguel Arias had built his own trusted relationships inside the Hmong community. He had served as chief of staff for City Councilman Xiong and worked closely with members of Gen. Vang Pao’s family.
As chief of the communications office, Arias had the ability to pay for the programs out of his own budget. But he did not have the power to sign off on the expenditure by himself. He needed the second signature of Susan Bedi, a longtime public information officer who managed the office. But Bedi, according to former top-ranking officials, refused to sign for the money. She reportedly told Arias that such an expenditure would constitute a misappropriation of public funds. In other words, it would be a crime.
Retired from Fresno Unified, Bedi said it was best if I got the full story from Arias and others. Because her husband still works for the school district, she said she wasn’t comfortable talking. Sources say Bedi did share her concerns at the time with trusted co-workers. According to their accounts, Arias was seeking more than ten thousand dollars in district funds for the programs and possibly additional funds for other funeral needs.
How much money Arias ended up getting access to, and from what source inside Fresno Unified, remains a well-guarded secret. To whom he handed the money—Tony Vang or another elder in the general’s family—is not known either. No accounting of the transaction exists, according to Arias in 2011. “There is no record,” he said. What is known is that the general’s family acknowledges Fresno Unified by name, along with other contributors, on the back of the full-color memorial program.
“The district’s budget is so big that ten, twenty or thirty thousand would be easy to hide,’’ said one former FUSD administrator. “All Miguel had to do was go to someone at the top, and the money would appear and then disappear. Like magic.”
One Hmong community leader involved in the funeral planning said he recalled a gift of $10,000 from Fresno Unified to cover the printing costs of one program and a gift of $5,000 from the Fresno County Office of Education to cover the printing costs of another program. In the case of the county office, at least there’s a record of the expenditure and an actual invoice, though the reasoning by then-Supt. Larry Powell for giving the money—Vang Pao was a friend and I thought it might service an educational purpose—seems hard to justify.
“This was political,” said the Hmong community leader. “The donation of the Exhibit Hall by the city and the gifts from Fresno Unified and the county office. It was about wanting to get close to the power of Vang Pao. What Americans don’t realize is the general wasn’t loved by all Hmong. Many of the clans were opposed to him.”
It was May, 2012, only 15 months later, when Trustee Tony Vang came knocking on Michael Hanson’s door again.
He was looking for another favor, this one even more personal. The Bee was about to reveal that Vang was no longer living in his McLane High district, a requirement to hold his seat. In fact, for years, he had been residing with his family in a home he’d built inside Clovis Unified. Not only was Vang lying to his constituents but he had committed voter registration fraud along the way.
Hanson and his top managers had known for years that Vang was living in Clovis Unified; they even joked about it. Now that he had been caught, how should they proceed? If Hanson was thinking about his duty to the public, he would have offered Vang a shoulder to cry on and told him there was nothing more he could do about his predicament. The political fate of a school board member, after all, is outside the domain of a school district. A legal line separates the two, which is why superintendents are prohibited from raising funds for school board candidates.
But Hanson was thinking about himself, and the votes he’d need to keep his $430,000-a-year job. The way he saw it, the line that separated him and the board wasn’t how the real world worked. Time and again, with the help of Arias, he had raised campaign money and found campaign volunteers for school board members, including Vang and Cal Johnson. At best, Hanson considered the line to be hazy. Time and again, he flouted it.
Instead of telling Trustee Vang to come clean publicly about his true residency— that a superintendent couldn’t throw himself into such a matter—Hanson began a forceful cover up. He consulted with Mary Beth De Goede, the attorney who can’t figure out if she represents Hanson or the board. Behind closed doors, according to former district employees, Hanson then met with Deputy Superintendent Quinto and Trustee Vang. They were joined by Jamilah Fraser, the newest member of the communications team whose “damn-the-truth” PR tactics had roiled the Philadelphia school system just a few years before.
Together, they devised a false time line and made up a pathetically sad story of Trustee Vang and his family caught in the grip of a real estate bust that saw them lose their home in the McLane area. But, rest assured, they said, the Vangs were still living in the McLane district in another house. As for the house in Clovis Unified listed under his name, that residence belonged to other family members who were taking care of Vang’s frail mother.
Fresno Unified then sold the false story to ABC-30 Action News. All that was missing from the segment was a crying Tony Vang. What Action News didn’t know was the Vang’s mother had died years earlier.
Hanson was counting on the school board, at least a solid majority of it, to go along with the charade. Two of the trustees, Michelle Asadoorian and Larry Moore, had become strong advocates for transparency and a school board in which Hanson actually answered to the trustees, and not the other way around. Asadoorian (my sister) and Moore called a press conference and argued that the district was misappropriating public funds by defending a school board member, and one who was clearly lying. They urged an outside government agency—the attorney general’s office, the county district attorney, the county grand jury—to investigate the matter. None ever did.
The school board majority loyal to Hanson—Carol Mills, Janet Ryan, Valerie Davis and Cal Johnson—pretended nothing was amiss. But as the Bee dug deeper, it became more and more evident that Hanson, Vang and their supporters were clinging to a preposterous lie. That’s when a few citizens led by gadfly Tony Benjamin Taylor sprang into action.
For the next several weeks, school board meetings became theaters of the absurd with President Vang playing the part of a banana republic dictator. Each time, the pony-tailed Taylor and other citizens called out his lie and asked him to step down, Vang leaned into his microphone and pronounced them “Out of order! Out of order!” He cut the public comment period from three minutes to mere seconds, instructing a police officer to escort each dissenter out of the chamber. In all my years covering public meetings, small town and big town, I had never seen such a sad and funny parody of democracy.
Eventually, the truth became even too much for Hanson and Vang. Four months into the spectacle, Vang decided to vacate his seat, if not come clean. All told, Fresno Unified had spent tens of thousands of dollars in staff time and resources—to perpetuate a lie. In the name of protecting one of Hanson’s rubber stamps, the district had misappropriated public funds once again.
In the growing heat of the federal probe into “pay to play” no-bid construction projects, Hanson continues, almost defiantly, to hold onto his job. Even the three school board members who support the federal probe have recently muted their public criticism of the superintendent as they find themselves, through their own inaction, represented by the same criminal attorney as Hanson.
Where, one might ask, is the concern, if not outrage, of community and education leaders, county superintendent of schools, parents, teachers, the FTA? As yet another scandal presses down on the district, and the best and brightest Latino, Asian, white and black students continue to flee to Clovis Unified, not a peep has been heard out of any of them.
The silence of the mayor, in particular, speaks volumes. Surely she isn’t oblivious to the decade-long record of Hanson failing to close the achievement gap between whites and minorities a single point, not to mention all his public lies on matters small and large. But she seems more inclined to display her loyalty to Pete Weber, a self-styled mandarin who was instrumental in landing both the mayor and the superintendent their jobs, than in seeking a new direction in education for the city.
And then there’s the fecklessness of the Bee. Even in the wake of a wide-ranging federal subpoena clearly focusing on the ties between Hanson, Quinto and Spencer, the paper has never told its readers about the close personal relationships they share or delved into the lease-leaseback sweetheart deals that extended beyond Gaston Middle School. The Bee has entrusted one of the most potentially impactful stories to ever hit the local education scene to a single beat reporter who’s been in Fresno only a short time, knows little about the main players and is having trouble developing any real sources high up in Fresno Unified or the U.S. Atty’s Office. To make matters worse, the reporter has been ill served by a Metro editor who doesn’t seem to grasp the significance of the story and has done his best to stifle any enterprise reporting and an executive editor who prefers not to take on the powers-that-be. During a recent interview with the Bee, Quinto reportedly broke down in tears and said, “I won’t go to prison.” The comment may reveal a lot or a little about her state of mind, but surely it needed to be shared with readers. Instead, the Bee kept it out of the paper.
Will the fixer behave this time? Supported by a staff even more bloated than it was during his first stint as communications chief, Arias will have his work cut out for him. He’ll be trying to convince the public that lease-leaseback really isn’t a scandal, that the feds aren’t investigating corruption at the highest levels of Fresno Unified and that district’s most recent round of test scores, the lowest of any big district in the state, aren’t really low.
This time, Arias returns to the job as a politician as well, having won a seat to the State Center Community College District board, raising a considerable chunk of money from the usual suspects—Richard Spencer, Blong Xiong, Juan Arambula, Carol Mills, Janet Ryan, Kendra Rogers, Kurt Madden and $500 from Hanson himself, to name a handful.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I heard from Arias last week. He had caught wind that I had contacted the two female employees who had made formal complaints about his mistreatment of them—complaints that Hanson had kept from the school board.
“I understand you have contacted district personnel and inquired about my interactions with female employees,” he said in an email. “Please reframe (sic) from such inappropriate behavior as if it continues it will result in a civility notice.”
I knew the chief of communications probably meant “refrain” not “reframe.” But for the life of me I had no idea what a “civility notice” was. Then I remembered. Arias had threatened me with the same notice years earlier when he wrote to my bosses at Fresno State, trying to get me in hot water.
Digging into the facts of Fresno Unified was an act of incivility in Arias’ eyes. And such an act needed to be met with remonstration. He and I had come full circle. He was back in the role he was born for. Damn the public.