SAN ANTONIO - It was a sex scandal that rocked the Harlandale School District earlier this year. Board member Josh Cerna was found hiding in a bedroom closet inside the home of one of the district's principals. But now the sordid story has taken another bizarre twist.
When South San ISD recently announced the name of its new police chief my phone started ringing. Several sources tell me the man South San selected, Gene Tovar, got that $60,000 a year job because of a political backroom deal. And it was all meant to protect Cerna from a potentially embarrassing lawsuit.
So what is Tovar’s connection to Harlandale board member josh Cerna?
It started one night last December when Tovar, a Windcrest police officer at the time, came home and found Cerna hiding in his bedroom closet after suspecting his wife, who was a Harlandale principal, was cheating.
Once I broke news of the scandal, Maria Tovar was demoted by Harlandale to vice-principal and moved to a different school. Soon after the change in her job, Maria Tovar hired a lawyer and threatened to sue Cerna and the district according to several board members. That would have been a political nightmare for Cerna, who is up for reelection soon. So a deal was made according to several sources.
In exchange for Gene Tovar getting the South San police chief job, his wife would agree not file a lawsuit against Cerna, who is politically connected to neighboring South San.
Cerna told me in a phone call he denies having any influence on the hire.
“I had nothing to do with it,” said Cerna.
The superintendent who hired gene Tovar denies the fix was in.
“I'm very confident about him. I think he's the right person for South San,” insists superintendent Rebecca Robinson. “Whatever issues there are at Harlandale, those are Harlandale's problems. Those are not South San's problems.”
Robinson says she controlled the entire hiring process form start to finish. Including throwing out some candidates who had more experience than Tovar, selecting which ones would be interviewed and picking department heads who later recommended Tovar.
The district’s selection committee members picked Tovar even though he did not have the minimum supervisory experience required in the job posting. Tovar has only 7 years as a supervisor at Windcrest, but South San posted the minimum requirement for overseeing other officers at 10-15 years. Those staffers also had to sign confidentiality agreements not to talk about the hiring process, a new policy according to the district.
“I can tell you, right now. I never received a phone call from a board member saying you've got to pick this person. I had no communication with the board until the day I took the name to the board in executive session,” says Robinson.
Gene Tovar has a spotless law enforcement record, and his resume reflects it. He also has a masters degree, but not in law enforcement, in business administration.
But it appears he did not do all the work himself. I discovered a leadership statement he claims to have written and submitted to the district as part of his resume was copied almost word for word from a website that sells research papers to students.
The school board was only given Tovar’s name 15 minutes prior to voting last month. The next day board president Helen Madla says she starting hearing the rumors of a political deal, but says it's just not true.
“We don't want things like this to happen, but unfortunately what's out there, the rumors, you can't change that,” says Madla. “We're finally doing it right and we're still being criticized.”
The board president told me off camera, after our interview, that if the board had known about Tovar’s connection to the controversy in Harlandale, they would not have voted to make him police chief.
Tovar and his wife did not comment for this story. But Maria Tovar did call a local private investigator, asking him to do a background check on me. Tovar told the investigator she wanted to dig up dirt on me because I was about to report a story that in her words – “was going to get her husband fired.”
South San officials tell me they have not plans to fire Tovar and look for a new Chief of Police.
** The comment section has been deleted from this story because of the personal nature of some of the comments