The Aria Resort & Casino, a five-diamond hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, is one of sin city’s most lavish places. At the Aria, you can dine at the tables of celebrity chefs, spoil yourself at its 80,000 sq. ft. salon and spa, and party at one of its 10 bars and nightclubs.
If you’ve never been, former Assemblyman Jose Solorio can tell you about its splendor. Last summer, he spent two nights at the Aria’s “City View Corner Suite” while attending the annual convention of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.
Solorio’s suite featured a floor-to-ceiling panoramic view of the Las Vegas skyline, separate living and dining rooms, three LCD high definition televisions, free private limousine rides to and from the airport, and an in-suite wet bar.
“Our Corner Suite has it all,” Aria’s website declares. “An almost endless array of top-of-the-line amenities that can’t be replicated by other hotels puts you at ease and will swiftly evolve to be your most enjoyed haven.”
The bill for Solorio’s stay totaled $2,036.73, including airfare and registration for the event. The suite alone cost over $800.
It was an all expenses paid trip -- courtesy of the taxpayers of the Rancho Santiago Community College District, where Solorio serves on the board of trustees.
Solorio’s stay at the Aria was just one example of how the trustees and top administrators at Rancho Santiago, which serves many of Orange County's poorest residents, have been living a jetsetter’s dream, traveling around the country and to places as far flung as Saudi Arabia, India, Mexico City and Beijing.
A Voice of OC review of over 2,000 pages of expense claims and supporting records shows that high-level district officials have spent more than $200,000 on travel and associated expenses over the past five years.
On occasion, other organizations unaffiliated with the district would pay some expenses. But the records indicate that the vast majority of expenses were paid for by the district and a nonprofit foundation controlled by district leaders.
All told, the officials took over 200 trips to 48 different cities in five countries. And they kept up the travel even as the Great Recession and its aftermath ravaged the district's overall budget.
Trustees actually went so far as to increase their travel expenses by thousands of dollars at the same time Santa Ana College students were forced to hold hot dog sales to save a summer school math class.
District regulations acknowledge a responsibility to be frugal with taxpayer funds, saying that travel expenses must be “actual” and “necessary,” and include supporting records like receipts.
Yet interviews with former trustees, expense reimbursement claims, and other documents obtained by Voice of OC reveal a different kind of ethos -- one in which high-level district officials not only feel entitled to travel extensively on the taxpayers' dime, but also to spend freely on things like flight upgrades, limo rides and expensive dinners.
Former Trustee David Chapel, who spent little on travel while serving on the board, said that when he scrutinized pending travel expenses by his colleagues, the administration couldn’t tell him how much trips would cost, and his colleagues scoffed at objections to their spending.
“This was just an excuse to take a mini vacation at taxpayers’ expense,” Chapel said.
Here's a rundown of the trustees' travel spending:
• When trustees John Hanna, Phil Yarbrough and then-Trustee Brian Conley flew to Dallas for a conference in 2011, Hanna and Yarbrough rented separate cars and drove a combined 354 miles during their six-day stay, even though the conference was less than two miles from their hotels. The rental cars, gasoline and parking cost the district $777.
• In 2014, Hanna was reimbursed for a Saturday night stay at the Washington Marriott Georgetown in Washington, DC, and meals that day even though the “leadership institute” he attended didn’t start until Monday. The extra night and meal per-diem cost the district $201.26.
• Conley and Yarbrough rented separate cars while in Monterey for an annual community college trustees conference in 2011. The combined total for car rentals and gas was $752.14.
• Conley billed a $120 private limo ride from Washington, DC to Baltimore to the district during the 2012 national legislative summit of the Association of Community College Trustees. He also billed a hotel night and a day of meals on Saturday even though the event didn’t begin until Monday. The extra hotel stay and meals cost the district $259.54.
Such disregard for cost controls added to year-after-year travel spending increases even as the recession’s impacts lingered. In fact, Rancho Santiago trustees spent more on travel during fiscal years covering 2009 to 2012 than any other community college district board in the county, according to figures compiled by Voice of OC.
This despite the fact that Rancho Santiago serves a community of youth with perhaps the greatest educational need in the county. The district’s largest city, Santa Ana, has a much higher poverty rate higher than the state average, and, with over 30 percent of its 330,000 residents under 18 years old, it is one of the youngest cities in the nation.
Additionally, just 8.5 percent of Santa Ana adults over 25 have a Bachelor's degree, compared with 24 percent countywide.
Mike Moodian, a Chapman University professor who in 2012 ran for a board seat at another community college district, completed a trustee expenses study that year looking at all four of the county's community college districts. He said he was especially alarmed by the Rancho trustees’ increases in spending.
“What really bothered me about the Rancho Santiago district, a lot of these trips were taking place right in the aftermath of the Great Recession,” Moodian said. “That was part of my motivation for really digging into this. That was a red flag for me.”
Since Moodian’s report, there are indications travel has only become even more lavish. He said he didn’t see anything like Solorio’s trip to the Aria during his review.
“That is crazy,” Moodian said. “$400 a night – I don’t understand how any district will allow that. I didn’t come up with anything that crazy.”
Beyond the trustees, other high-level district officials also enjoy generous travel budgets.
Peter Hardash, the vice chancellor of business services, flew “business select” on Southwest Airlines, a more expensive luxury seat that comes with a “premium drink,” on more than a dozen trips between 2010 and this year. Chancellor Raúl Rodríguez also flew business select on at least two trips. Such tickets on Southwest typically cost between $200 and $400 more than the least expensive coach ticket.
On a trip Vice Chancellor of Education Services Enrique Perez took to Baja Mexico for a bi-national mayors' summit, the conference included a day designated just for wine tasting at the L.A. Cetto Winery in Ensenada. It’s not known whether Perez took part in the wine tasting portion of the trip. His reimbursement claim and backup records contained conflicting information, and he refused to be interviewed.
Hardash’s 2011 stay at the South Coast Winery and Spa during the Association of Chief Business Officials annual fall conference – which cost the district over $900 -- included so much wine, one conference attendee actually requested “less wine next time” in a review left for the event.
Others were uncomfortable with such indulgences at a time when the Great Recession was taking a heavy toll on government budgets. One reviewer wrote that it was “uncomfortable” to have the event at a “resort” venue in times of fiscal distress. The official suggested using community college facilities in the future so it would be more “low key.”
Another telling example of the travel culture enjoyed by the district's honchos was a dinner -- punctuated with a bout of binge drinking -- enjoyed by Rodríguez and Perez in Washington, D.C. after last year’s U.S.-Mexico Binational Forum on Higher Education, Innovation and Research.
The purpose of the dinner, according to the receipt they turned into the district, was a post-forum "debrief."
The debrief included 10 glasses of Cachaca, which the restaurant’s menu describes as “fiery clear liquor distilled from Brazil’s finest sugar cane,” four Capirinha cocktails, which are made from Cachaca, limes and sugar, and four 300 ml glasses of Xingu beer.
According to the restaurant receipt, Rodriguez and Perez were the only guests at the table. And while they did reimburse the district for the alcohol – which cost $121 – they didn’t for the food they ate, which including tip cost the district $94.80.
(Click here to see the receipt.)
Voice of OC's review of the expense reports indicates a willful lack of accountability on the part of district administrators.
Receipts were missing from several claims. And on many claims, where trustees are supposed to attest that the expenses are “actual” and “necessary,” the signatures of trustees were obviously forged.
When first told about the signatures being forged on claims, Bob Stern, a government ethics expert and co-author of the state’s Political Reform Act, was nearly speechless.
“That’s amazing,” he said.
Stern added that, even if a district employee had permission to sign for trustees, it’s bad practice because it absolves trustees of accountability.
“The question is has the person reviewed it? And the answer is probably no,” Stern said. “The person should be signing it. That would be more appropriate.”
District administrators refused to be interviewed for this article. A statement from the district said that reimbursement claims go through a “process of review, verification and approval.” It also pointed out that travel expenditures reviewed by Voice of OC “reflect .0002 [percent ] of the District’s annual adopted budget of approximately $200 [million] a year.”
Trustees Arianna Barrios, Larry Labrado and Nelinda Yanez did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article. Trustee Claudia Alvarez – who submitted claims without receipts – hung up on a reporter when reached for comment.
Solorio, among the few who did agree to an interview, pointed out efforts he and the district staff had made to lower the costs of his trip. He provided emails with Rancho Santiago staff that indicate his nearly 1,000 sq. ft. suite was the cheapest room available at the luxury hotel on the days of the conference.
However, Trustee Larry Labrado, who also attended the NALEO conference, stayed at the Aria on the same evenings and at around half the nightly cost.
Solorio also pointed out that he saved the district money by agreeing to stay in a room that cost $100 less than a standard room because it was accessible for disabled people.
“I gladly accepted an ‘accessible’ room that was $100 less, I only stayed for two instead of three nights, and I paid NALEO extra to become a member to receive an additional conference discount for the District,” Solorio wrote in an email to Voice of OC.
However, in his e-mail, Solorio didn’t say whether they looked at booking at hotels other than the five-diamond Aria. And while Solorio could have taken advantage of the free private limo to and from the airport, he instead billed the district for cab rides.
Yarbrough defended the travel spending and said travel budgets were slashed during the recession. He also pointed out that trustees took a pay cut of 10 percent, and that meals for trustees during meetings were downgraded to a “cold sandwich and a can of soda.”
“We hacked our travel expense. Hacked it to the point where we really couldn’t maintain it,” Yarbrough said. “We slashed those as much as we possibly could.”
Regardless of the budget, trustees did increase their actual travel expenses in 2009-10, again in 2010-11 and again in 2011-12, when they spent over $22,000 on travel. That same fiscal year, the district made millions of dollars in cuts, including “across the board cuts to course offerings,” according to a news report from Santa Ana College’s El Don newspaper.
Yarbrough, along with some other trustees, blamed Chapel for Voice of OC's questioning, saying he had an axe to grind with his former colleagues. Chapel was ousted from the board after the district switched from electing trustees at-large to a districts-based election system. Yarbrough claimed that trustees refused Chapel’s request to guarantee his reelection by gerrymandering the districts.
Yarbrough also alleged that Chapel, a vocal critic of trustees’ travel expenses, had taken a trip to China at district expense, but tried to hide it and “flushed” it through the district’s foundation. He claims to have discovered that Chapel had visited China, wined and dined and saw the Great Wall, and that he personally put a stop to Chapel’s scheme to finance it through the district foundation.
“I killed the whole Chinese thing,” Yarbrough said. “Don’t get sucked into David’s little war.”
In response to Yarbrough’s claims, Chapel said an outside organization paid for the China trip. He also said that he consistently pressed his colleagues on the travel expenses issue well before he left the board.
Yarbrough acknowledged that Hardash upgrading his airline seat so often to business select was concerning. But he questioned whether Hardash received those upgrades for free because Hardash is such a frequent flyer.
Meanwhile, Yarbrough couldn’t explain why he racked up 231 miles on a rental car during his trip to Dallas. He said it was five years ago and he couldn’t remember whether he had done that much driving, but doubted it. “I’m not sure. I’ll have to look into it. It’s been a long time,” he said.
When asked why both he and Hanna rented cars while attending the event instead of sharing one if they were going to the same conference every day, Yarbrough replied “I don’t know. I’m sure we could have taken the bus too.”
When reached for comment, Conley at first denied he had billed a private limo ride to the district.
“I don’t even remember. I doubt it,” Conley said. “Unless you have documentation...I don’t have documentation of it.”
Voice of OC then obtained an expense receipt that showed Conley was reimbursed for a “Sedan-L” from DC Livery, which a company representative confirmed is code for a private limo. The reporter tried to contact Conley again about the expense, but he didn’t return the follow-up call.
The only trustee to acknowledge that mistakes had been made was Hanna. When confronted with his extra spending in Washington, D.C. last year, he said he shouldn’t have taken the per diem for meals on Saturday when the conference didn’t begin until Monday and that he would be writing a refund check to the district for $65.
However, he said he wouldn’t reimburse the district for the Saturday night hotel stay because he said he was “entitled” to reimbursement for at least as many hotel nights as the conference ran, even though the logic appears to contradict the district’s “actual” and “necessary” regulations.
Under Hanna’s reasoning, he said he stayed with a friend the last night of the conference, which gave him a surplus night he could bill to the district.
“I stayed with a friend on the last night, which I would have gotten reimbursed for, so I’m entitled to three nights,” Hanna said.
(Update: After this article was published, the district's media consultant, George Urch, informed Voice of OC that Hanna would also be refunding the district $136.26 for the cost of the extra hotel night.)
In general, Hanna defended the travel as good for the district. He also pointed out that trustee travel was only about 5 percent of the district’s total employee travel costs, and that board travel has remained well below the $25,000 allowed in the budget.
“In terms of a macro expenditure, we’re under budget. We’re under budget every year but one I think” between 2010 and 2015, Hanna said.
Hanna also said that some trustees happen to travel more than others because they hold leadership positions on statewide community college associations, and that the travel allows them to wield influence as associations take positions on various bills in Sacramento.
As for why it was necessary for multiple trustees to be renting cars while attending the same conference in the same city, Hanna said the trustees never take the same flight and were on different schedules. He also said he chooses cheaper hotels and only attends conferences where the knowledge gained benefits the district.
“I sleep well at night with my trips,” Hanna said.
Addressing the wild night out for Rodriguez and Perez, Hanna at first shrugged it off. “These guys aren’t Irish. I am and I can’t drink 18 drinks,” he said.
But then he said he was under the impression that the chancellor receives a per diem for meals, and it’s “worth looking into” to change the rules so the chancellor gets a daily limit on food spending.
Selling Hot Dogs While Trustees Boost Travel
From 2009 to 2011, while the trustees were increasing their travel budgets, the district’s two community colleges, Santa Ana College and Santiago Canyon College, were dealing with the major cuts to classes and other education programs.
Courses were cut from summer school and winter intersession periods. Students from working-class families who already struggled to get to school because of lack of transit options scrambled to find the courses they needed at other colleges.
In order to save a key math class for transferring to a four-year university, the students threw multiple hot dog sales, organized a “taste of Santa Ana” event and held raffles, according to former Santa Ana College student body President Alex Flores. He said it cost around $8,000 to save the class.
News of the travel spending increases disheartened students. “The student government did raise those questions... it did concern us a lot,” Flores said.
What they were told essentially was that the travel budgets came from restricted funding categories and “that money could never go towards saving a class,” Flores said.
Voice of OC received conflicting answers when questioning district trustees about this.
Hanna said trustees’ travel budget comes from the unrestricted general fund, and can be spent on saving classes. But he disputed Flores' claims that the student body addressed travel spending with the board.
Chapel was less clear on whether the money could be spent on classes. But he said at the very least it still could have gone toward other expenses that benefit students, like microscopes and computers.
Chapel said the greed for travel money was so pervasive that when he offered to lower his own travel budget, other trustees asked him if they could have his travel money.
“I was so shocked by that I don’t remember responding,” Chapel said.
Hobnobbing With 'Rookies and Wannabes'
In addition to the conferences and other junkets, trustees spent thousands of dollars on legislative advocacy trips to Sacramento and Washington, DC.
Former board Trustee Mark McLoughlin, who spent a fraction on travel compared to other trustees, said he never understood why multiple trustees had to make these trips.
The legislative advocacy trips in particular were of little value because much of the time, the state and national legislators they wanted to see were unavailable, McLoughlin said. Instead, they met with low-level legislative staffers – political “rookies” and “wannabes” -- he said.
“Why do I have to talk to you guys and tell you my problems... when I probably know more than you know at this point in time?” McLoughlin said.
Other trips that were more focused on workshops seemed to have more value, McLoughlin said. But when asked to point to some specific benefit brought to the district – like a grant or some new knowledge that helped district leaders govern more effectively – McLoughlin was at a loss.
“I don’t think there’s anything I could say, where everybody said, that was an ‘aha’ moment... why hadn’t we thought of that?” McLoughlin said. “If you can come back and turn this $2,000 trip into a half million dollar trip, that’s one thing. But if you can’t justify that or come up with results that justify that, you have to question why is it that two or three people have to go on this trip?”
Hanna and Solorio disagreed. Hanna said McLoughlin probably just had a bad experience on his trip and that he often met with high-level officials, including congress members Ed Royce, Loretta Sanchez and Dana Rohrabacher.
“You tell me is that low level?” Hanna said.
Solorio said the district was able to win a $5 million innovation grant by attending networking events, and that a recent successful effort to start offering bachelor’s degrees was also a result of the travel. He said it was also important to support sponsoring legislation for students on advocacy trips.
“I think all these things are very important, critical endeavors,” Solorio said.
But when asked specifically at which event district officials were able to come upon the multi-million dollar grant, Solorio said he didn’t know.
Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek