A proposed ban on officials accepting gifts at the Rancho Santiago Community College District has stalled following concerns from board trustees about whether it is too ambiguous.
At the board’s Feb. 22 meeting, Trustee Larry Labrado pointed in particular to a paragraph in the proposed ban that seems to create a loophole that officials could exploit. The wording allows officials to accept “meals, beverages, receptions or promotional items received in the course of organized group events” hosted by individuals or organizations that do business with the district.
Following Labrado’s objection, a discussion ensued over whether the gift ban should have any exceptions at all. Trustees decided to wait on deciding the matter until a board meeting later this month when a representative from the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission is expected to attend and be available for questions.
Meanwhile, Orange County political ethics watchdog Shirley Grindle reviewed the policy and called it “very weak,” saying that it left out key definitions of terms, doesn’t state a purpose for the ban and states nothing about enforcement. She also agreed with Labrado’s criticism that the paragraph in question was unclear.
Leaders of the district, which includes Santa Ana College and Santiago Canyon College, have been considering a gift ban since December when a Voice of OC investigation found that vice chancellor of business services, Peter Hardash, had received nearly $3,500 in gifts, mainly from district vendors who received millions of dollars in contracts.
The investigation revealed that Hardash had accepted more gifts than any other community college district official in the county with similar responsibilities. The gifts primarily were golf outings, with Hardash recommending contracts sometimes within days of the companies treating him to free rounds of golf.
When first confronted with the totality of Hardash’s gifts, Chancellor Raul Rodriguez wrote in an email that they were simply an example of “good networking” by Hardash.
The articles also exposed how Rodriguez, Hardash and other district officials often travel in luxury on the taxpayers’ dime, receiving flight upgrades, staying in lavish hotels and sometimes overbilling for travel reimbursements. As a result, district leaders also began overhauling the travel reimbursement policy.
Regarding the proposed gift ban, Grindle recommended the district model it after the county policy, which she helped pass in the early 1990s.
“I don’t know why they don’t just use the county’s [gifts ban]. It’s very clear,” Grindle said.
Grindle also agreed that the paragraph exempting officials involved in “group events” as being allowed to accept some gifts could be interpreted to mean Hardash accepting free golf during his meetings with contractors would also be OK.
During the board discussion last month, trustees made it clear they want to address the perceptions about conflicts of interest and corruption that arise with situations like Hardash’s gifts. Among the solutions they discussed was to adopt a gift ban, but only implement it with officials that make or influence decisions on contracts.
“I think there is an issue we need to address pertaining to the issue of a conflict,” said board President Claudia Alvarez.
They also took issue with reporting by Voice of OC that referenced a gift ban at the South Orange County Community College District. Debra Fitzimons, South Orange’s vice chancellor of business services told Voice of OC that her district has a gift ban and would not tolerate employees accepting gifts from district contractors.
Following the article’s publication, Rodriguez said he had checked with South Orange officials and found they did not have a gift ban, and that Fitzsimons “hemmed and hawed” when she was questioned about it.
Then, at last month’s Rancho Santiago board meeting, Rodriguez said that after checking with South Orange again he discovered the gift ban was not comprehensive, and, in fact, weaker than the ban Rancho Santiago already has in place in its purchasing department.
However, Fitzsimons confirmed again with a reporter last week that the South Orange gift ban is in fact comprehensive because it covers all of the district’s contracts, including agreements for services. She said every district contract comes with a purchase order that explicitly bans the contractor from giving gifts to district employees.
Also, Fitzsimons said since Voice of OC’s articles, her district has decided to include the gift ban in all contract language going forward, in addition to the purchase orders. She said this “double-whammy” would leave no doubt about her district’s policy.