Leaders of the Rancho Santiago Community College District and its nonprofit foundation are facing questions over travel to Saudi Arabia funded at least in part by either the Saudi government or a company organized in the Middle-Eastern kingdom.
Officials with the district and its foundation – including district Chancellor Raul Rodriguez, foundation director and district assistant vice chancellor Enrique Perez, and Dr. Gustavo Chamorro, a staffer at the district’s digital media center – have travelled to Saudi Arabia at various times as part of a controversial deal in which the district would help run two technical schools in the country.
When the deal came to light earlier this year, members of district's faculty association harshly criticized the officials for partnering with the Saudi regime, which has among the worst human rights records in the world.
The faculty association members also called into question the legality of the deal by revealing that the foundation violated the state’s open meetings law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act, by approving the deal in secret.
The foundation board is now looking to reapprove the controversial agreement at a public meeting Thursday afternoon.
Now there are indications that Rodriguez, Peres and Chamorro travelled to Saudi Arabia on the Saudis’ dime, raising questions about whether that compensation was appropriately disclosed, or even legal.
Scrawled at the top of an email attached to an expense reimbursement claim for a Perez trip to the country this year says “Saudis paying for hotel and flight,” and at the top of an attached itinerary is the statement, “Saudis covering flight cost.”
What exactly those statements mean – whether it was the Saudi government or a private company that paid -- is unclear. But the foundation is looking to partner with two Saudi companies in the deal, including the Colleges of Excellence Company and Al Kaleej Training and Education.
Another email to Chamorro attached to a reimbursement claim last year states that Al Khaleej is “handling all bookings for hotels and flight to Saudi Arabia, so we don’t need to worry about that part.” The claim didn’t include reimbursement requests for airfare and lodging.
Chamorro filed a reimbursement claim with the foundation this year for parking and meals, but didn’t show who paid for the airfare and hotels. And emails show that Rodriguez went to Saudi Arabia last year, but the agency has no records of an expense reimbursement claim.
This week, when a Voice of OC reporter went to the district's headquarters to review the expense documents, he was met with stiff resistance from district officials.
When he asked for the records he was told by Josie Rodriguez, assistant to the executive vice chancellor, that he would need to submit a request in writing and that the agency has 10 days to respond.
After the reporter asserted his right, under the California Public Records Act, to inspect the records during normal business hours, Rodriguez responded, “I’m in violation of the law. Sue me.”
Later Rodriguez attempted to restrict the reporter's ability to take notes and photos of the documents, citing district regulations. The reporter reviewed the regulations and found nothing relating to such restrictions regarding the inspection of public records. Yet Rodriguez still demanded that no pictures be taken.
Regarding whether officials violated the law with the trips to Saudi Arabia, Jay Wierenga, spokesman at the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces that Political Reform Act, said that, generally, it’s illegal for a foreign company to pay for public officials’ travel expenses.
However, it’s unclear whether that applies to Al Kaleej or the Colleges of Excellence
A Bloomberg profile described Al Kaleej as a for-profit, public company. And the Colleges of Excellence is described in a draft joint venture agreement between Al Kaleej and the college district foundation as a “publicly funded” and “private company,” and a subsidiary of the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation, which according to profiles is a Saudi government agency.
If a foreign government pays for the travel, then there are other rules that make it legal but with disclosure requirements, according to Wierenga. For example, the travel needs to be disclosed on a public “payment to agency” form known as an 801, Wierenga said. If that form isn’t filed, the officials must disclose the payments on a public statement of economic interests, known as a Form 700.
“Generally speaking, a public official has to report travel and can not take travel from a foreign company,” Wierenga wrote in an email to Voice of OC.
When asked if public officials can be compensated by a foreign company for travel under a services contract, Wierenga replied that it “doesn't matter what any 'contract' says, generally speaking a public official has to report travel and cannot take travel from a foreign company.”
“From what I was told, it’s not even allowed,” Wierenga said. “If it happened [generally,] then maybe there’s an enforcement action.”
Form 700s obtained by Voice of OC for all three officials and covering last year show no compensation for travel to Saudi Arabia. And the district hasn’t yet responded to a request for 801 forms.
Bob Stern, co-author of the 1974 Political Reform Act, said that if a private Saudi company paid for the trips, “it could be a problem.” But he said the travel was likely paid for by the Saudi government, which would be legal, given that the foundation and district likely have attorneys who offer advice on the law.
“If the company paid for it, there could be conflict of interest questions,” Stern said.
Barry Resnick, president of the district faculty association, first questioned the trips in an op-ed written for Voice of OC earlier this month.
"So who paid for these trips?" Resnick wrote. "Is someone receiving a quid pro quo from the Saudis or will they be in the future?"
Rodriguez, Perez and Chamorro did not return phone calls and emails for comment.
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