A disgruntled parent urged the San Diego City Council to withhold $90,000 in taxpayer funding for the San Diego Junior Theater and demanded an independent investigation of alleged wrongdoing of the theater’s board of directors.
“That’s an abuse of taxpayer dollars,” Matt Valenti told the council’s budget committee. “That’s an abuse of kids. That’s an abuse of the truth.”
Valenti claims the Junior Theater board tried to hide incidents of sexual and physical abuse at the performing arts organization, a training ground for aspiring actors and backstage technicians since 1948.
Valenti organized a detailed presentation with multiple speakers -- including his daughter and wife -- and visual exhibits at Tuesday’s council budget committee meeting.
He repeated his long-standing allegation that the Junior Theater’s board had tried to protect Executive Director Jimmy Saba, who allegedly grabbed and shook a student.
Valenti also told councilmembers that theater board members failed to heed warnings that an instructor had an illegal sexual relationship with a teenage drama student.
Other critics echoed those allegations.
“How can an organization that’s so obviously and willfully derelict in their duty to protect the care and safety of these kids be allowed to continue to do so?” asked Shaun Evans, who formerly worked for another local youth theater program.
The Junior Theater board has repeatedly and forcefully denied Valenti’s allegations.
“This is an ongoing battle led by a disgruntled former family that we have been dealing with since 2016,” said Carla Corder, the Junior Theater’s communications director. “San Diego Junior Theater is a safe place for children.”
Corder told NBC 7 that the incident of alleged sexual misconduct with the teenage girl by former teacher Eric von Metzke was “not ignored or covered up. A police report was prompted filed by the (theater’s) executive director, and von Metzke was arrested and convicted. The situation was handled swiftly because strong safety standards are already in place.”
The theater’s supporters also deny any attempt to cover-up reports that Executive Director James Saba grabbed and shook a student. They say that the incident was dealt with swiftly and appropriately.
Valenti also criticized San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott, who he claims “illegally disclosed evidence related to three ongoing law enforcement investigations” of alleged child abuse and “crimes” at the Junior Theater.
Valenti claims Elliott wrongly shared information he gave her with Gil Cabera, a Junior Theater parent whom Valenti says was involved in the cover-up effort.
“Mr. Valenti’s allegations against me and my office are baseless, outrageous, and defamatory,” Elliott told NBC 7. “As a mother and as City Attorney, I take allegations of child abuse very seriously.”
Cabrera told NBC 7 that Valenti had already sent copies of his complaint to numerous elected officials and that it was a public document when he received it from Elliott. Cabrera added that the Junior Theater board has acted swiftly and appropriately when confronted with allegations of wrongdoing by staff.
"My own daughters are in Junior Theater,” Cabrera said. “I wouldn't send them there unless I thought it was safe. And I certainly would never cover anything up of a dangerous situation of a place that I'm sending my own girls to."
But several city council members expressed concern about Valenti’s comments and said they want more information about his allegations.
Councilman Chris Ward cautioned against a rush to judgment but said Valenti’s allegations could warrant an independent investigation, perhaps by the district attorney or state attorney general.
“I would maybe like to hear a little bit more about the status of some of these allegations and appropriate response, if necessary," Ward said at Tuesday’s meeting.
The city council will make decisions about the city budget and funding for Junior Theater by June 15.