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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

MAD: Top Sex Abuse Law Firm is Retained - Board Members Seek Distance from Scandal

A nationally prominent law firm that represents victims of sexual abuse confirmed on Wednesday they have been contracted in connection with allegations of improper conduct by leaders of Santa Barbara High School's Multimedia Arts & Design Academy.

“We have been retained,” attorney Stu Mollrich told Newsmakers, speaking for the Irvine-based firm of Manly, Stewart and Finaldi. “We have not yet filed an action.”

Their entry into the local controversy now swirling around the acclaimed MAD Academy raises the stakes in the affair, which escalated last week, when parents of a former student publicly accused Pablo Sweeney, the program’s ousted operations director, of sexual “predation” towards their son, as another parent released a social media video apparently showing Dan Williams, the soon-to-be-retired longtime director, partying with students.

In public comments to the school board, the parents charged that Santa Barbara Unified School District officials turned a blind eye to improprieties and failed to report them as required to law enforcement or child welfare agencies.

As Superintendent Cary Matsuoka, district executives and the school board maintained total silence about the allegations, on the advice of counsel, there were these new developments:

  • John C. Manly, lead attorney of the Orange County firm, told the Independent’s Blanca Garcia that two more unidentified, alleged victims have retained him “to represent them during law-enforcement interviews” and called Sweeney’s alleged conduct “at best, wildly inappropriate and at worst well-known grooming behaviors.”

  • The five-member school board, it was learned, is again expected to have the MAD Academy controversy on the agenda for their closed door session at next week’s board meeting, after discussing the matter in executive session last week without making any comment about it in the public portion of the meeting.

  • Members of the MAD Academy’s non-profit fundraising board, bidding to distance themselves from the matter, told parents in a letter that they are “not involved in any shape or manner” in allegations and investigations of improper behavior by leaders of the embattled program.

Although Williams works for the school district, Sweeney was employed by the non-profit, known as the California Academy Foundation.

A letter signed by 14 members of the board, incorporated to raise money for the self-described “school within a school” at Santa Barbara High, said they are “learning of and processing information in real time” about the affair.

The board “was not involved in any shape or manner with regards to the actions and subsequent investigations taken by the District against Pablo Sweeney or Dan Williams,” their letter said, adding:

“We are only a governing body and as such we have no power to determine the employment status of a union employee of the SBUSD such as Mr. Williams.

“In contrast, Mr. Sweeney was a MAD Academy employee and all of his salary was paid by CAF. However, because the Santa Barbara Unified School District was the first to be approached with the allegations against him, the School District immediately took over the investigation of Mr. Sweeney.

“The MAD Board was not involved in this investigation as we do not have any investigational powers. Therefore, we acquiesced to the District, who insisted they would handle the investigation.”

Fundraising function. The board was incorporated to raise money for the self-described “school within a school” at Santa Barbara High, supplementing district funds with major contributions that pay for support staff, equipment, student trips and other expenses.

According to documents posted by, an online operation that tracks non-profits, the foundation brought in $631,640 in 2017, the most recent year for which totals are available from audited financial statements, and paid out $541,892 for the program and other expenses. Tax documents for 2017 also show land and building assets of $1.8 million.

The volunteer board members who signed the letter gave this chronology of what they knew and when they knew it about the allegations and investigations that have clouded the end of the school year.

  • On January 17th, the board learned from the district that Sweeney had been escorted off campus, and placed him on “paid administrative leave.”

  • On March 1, Sweeney offered his resignation to Williams “and it was accepted.”

  • On April 17, the district informed the board, along with MAD parents, that Williams was being placed on paid administrative leave and, two weeks later, along with others involved with the academy, that he was returning to campus following an “amicable agreement” with the district.

Gratitude to Williams. Board members did not learn of specific allegations against Sweeney and Williams until last week, they said.

“Again, the MAD Board was never privy to or provided any specific details of the investigation,” the letter said. “The MAD Board was given the assurance that the District did not believe Mr. Williams’ presence represented any safety issues.”

The letter also expressed the board’s gratitude to Williams who reportedly received a standing ovation at the group's recent annual fundraising gala several weeks ago, shortly after he was allowed to return to campus.

“We are more than grateful to Dan Williams for the amazing program he has built,” it said. “At this time, the board is focused on 1) providing continuity for our existing amazing students of the Academy and 2) partnering with the district to find the very best replacement for Mr. Williams that will lead the MAD Academy and uphold its highest educational goals into the immediate future."

Efforts to reach Board chair Brett Queenen were unsuccessful.

Who is John Manly? Attorney Manly’s firm has been at the center of many of the most high-profile sexual abuse cases in the nation, including far-flung litigation against the Catholic Church, Michigan State University and the Los Angeles Unified School Board.

According to the firm’s website it has:

  • Recovered “over a billion dollars” on behalf of survivors who “have been subjected to inappropriate acts by clergy members” within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Dioceses of San Diego, San Bernardino and Monterey, among others.

  • Won a variety of lawsuits against LA Unified, worth “hundreds of millions of dollars,” establishing that district officials “failed to protect the well-being of its students,” in cases involving sex abuse and bullying.

  • Represented more than 50 alleged victims of Dr. Larry Nassar, the notorious former physician for the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team and the women’s team at Michigan State University.

The firm also represents women who have sued USC, charging that former university gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall sexually abused them during examinations, and accusing the administration of “actively and deliberately” covering up his behavior while failing to protect students.

In a recent interview with Manly, the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote that for sexual assault survivors, he is “the brass-knuckled lawyer of choice.”


Images: John C. Manly (The Chronicle of Higher Education); Cary Matsuoka (Paul Wellman/SB Independent); Dan Williams (KEYT); Brett Queene, chair of MAD Foundation; Manly in Monterey County Superior Court, where he sued the Archdiocese.

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