The Rancho Santiago Community College District has adopted a ban on officials taking gifts, a policy that comes several months after Voice of OC published an investigative series exposing a vice chancellor’s penchant for taking thousands of dollars in gifts from district contractors.
The district’s board of trustees finally approved the ban at their April 25 meeting after the body’s policy committee discussed the ban on at least five separate occasions, according to committee Chairman John Hanna.
Under the ban, officials who have to file public statements of economic interest – a form where public officials disclose income sources, gifts, stock holdings and real estate interests – can’t accept gifts from companies or people looking to do business with the district. Those who file the forms, known as Form 700s, do so because they make decisions on expenses like contracts for services.
College district board members who violate the newly adopted ban could be censured, removed from committees or from their position on the board. District employees could face reprimand, suspension or even termination.
(To read the three-page gift ban, click here.)
Hanna lauded the ban as a “landmark for higher education policy in Orange County.” Board trustees also decided to take the ban to a countywide legislative task force as a model for the other three community college districts in the county to adopt.
The adoption of the gift ban came after Voice of OC last December published a three-part series detailing how district leaders travel in luxury on the taxpayers’ dime – billing the district for things like airline seat upgrades, private limo rides and expensive suites at luxury hotels — and took home the most expensive health benefits packages in the state.
The articles also cast light on how companies doing business with the district lavished gifts on Peter Hardash, the vice chancellor of business services who also recommended nearly $12 million in contracts with the same vendors, at times within days of receiving gifts. The gifts consisted mostly of rounds of golf.
After the series, Hanna attended a Voice of OC open house event in which members of the public showed up to talk to the journalists about the articles. Some had questioned why Hardash wasn’t being disciplined, and Hanna replied that it would be unfair to punish the vice chancellor when there was no policy in place.
The new ban appears to have been modeled after the county gift ban, which is strict and contains few exceptions. Among them are “meals, beverages and free admission” at events held for “a bona fide educational, academic, or charitable organization, and commemorative gifts from such organizations” and with a cumulative value of $50 or less.
In the past, Rodriguez had defended Hardash’s gift taking as an example of good networking. And during a recent visit to the Santa Ana College Academic Senate, Rodriguez told faculty he thought the gift ban was an overreaction to the Voice of OC articles and said he’s received input that it is “austere” and “harsh.” He said he would be coming up with an administrative regulation that would carve out exemptions, but didn’t specify.
He also claimed that the perceived conflict of interest with Hardash didn’t really exist because Hardash wasn’t making decisions to recommend those contracts – despite staff reports that claimed as much – but said it could appear like that if “you “lined it up a certain way.”
However, he acknowledged that the “appearance of a conflict of interest is just as bad as the conflict itself.”
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