There have been numerous articles about the objections to the Rancho Santiago Community College District Foundation's (Foundation) proposed agreement with two Saudi technical schools and the government of Saudi Arabia.
Yet the real heart of the issue is the manner in which the Foundation has been operating and the contract itself. The questions are many, the answers are few and even those who should be in the know seem to have been kept in the dark.
I first learned of the Foundation's partnership plan with the Saudis in late February.
Nothing had ever been mentioned previously about the proposed agreement. There had been vague talk at various college meetings about foreign exchange programs with other countries where students would be recruited to attend our two colleges - Santa Ana and Santiago Canyon.
Nothing related to a separate corporation being formed where the Foundation would be legally entangled with the Saudis was ever discussed.
My first inclination was to contact the Foundation president, Kristin Crellin who is a Schools First Federal Credit Union employee and is one of six community members serving on the board.
In early March I contacted Ms. Crellin and she explained to me that the Saudi project was to bring students to our colleges much like what everyone else had heard. I also asked her if Schools First had made any contributions to the Foundation which were used for the Saudi project. Ms. Crellin was emphatic that no Schools First funds were used for the Saudi project. I believed her.
Subsequently a public records request uncovered an e-mail dated March 12, 2015 from Chancellor Raul Rodriguez to Ms. Crellin informing her that part of a 2014 $15,000 donation from Schools First to the Foundation was indeed used "to cover some of the initial expenses" of the Saudi project. In another e-mail that same day, Chancellor Rodriguez informed Ms. Crellin, "...Foundation meetings are publicized."
What he failed to state was that Foundation meetings had unlawfully not been publicized for the previous four years.
It's clear that even as the president of the Foundation, Ms. Crellin had no idea about the Saudi project, the operations of the Foundation nor about the use of the Schools First contribution.
Ms. Crellin was not alone.
When questions from the public began to surface in mid-March, a flurry of e-mails from Foundation Executive Director, Enrique Perez were sent to the other members of the Foundation board requesting “meetings” to discuss the contract that had actually already been awarded to the Foundation two months earlier.
Not only was the contract awarded in January, but Chancellor Rodriguez signed a binding letter of execution with the Saudis without any discussion or approval from the Foundation board members. Rodriguez and Perez obviously began realizing it was time to inform the board, especially considering he (Rodriguez) had sent an e-mail to the SCC Academic Senate president indicating that the binding letter of execution he had signed without Foundation board approval could result in liability of up to $1 million.
So not only was the Foundation president in the dark, the entire board appeared to have no idea about the agreement. Even the elected Board of Trustees were kept out of the loop. The year before the Trustees approved a purchase order for $5000 that was used to pay a consultant to help with an RFP bid on the Saudi project. However, nothing on the purchase order indicated it was related to Saudi Arabia. The purchase order was on the docket slipped between a purchase order for a catering company and Office Depot.
There are even more questions when reviewing the proposed contract.
The contract requires that the Foundation enter into a corporate partnership "organized and existing under the laws of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia". Further, the proposed contract calls for someone from the Foundation to serve as a board member of this foreign corporation and he/she will be entitled to remuneration. Who will that be? Or more likely, how would we ever know who that person will be? The Freedom of Information Act is not applicable in Saudi Arabia.
All this makes one wonder: Is this the type of agreement a public community college should be entering into?
Contrary to legal requirements, Foundation meeting agendas and minutes prior to March 2015 were never posted and only became available belatedly through a public records request.
In reviewing the past four years of agendas and minutes there are no authorizations for travel to Saudi Arabia or approvals for expenses related to travel to Saudi Arabia for any Foundation member. There is also no mention of this project on any agenda or in minutes dating back to 2011. We do know there have been trips made to Saudi Arabia by Chancellor Rodriguez, and Mr. Perez and by District employee Gustavo Chamorro in relation to this project. In reviewing the Statement of Economic Interests (Form 700) for Rodriguez and Perez, nothing related to travel to Saudi Arabia exists.
So who paid for these trips?
Between February 12-27 of this year, Chamorro traveled to Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Foundation. While his expenses were never authorized prior to travel, they were approved at the May 12, 2015 Foundation meeting. Chamorro was reimbursed $604.37 which included $420 for airport parking and $139.19 for telephone usage. Airfare and lodging were not included on his expense report.
Again, who paid for these expenses?
Is someone receiving a quid pro quo from the Saudis or will they be in the future?
Where have the district's elected trustees been? They have the oversight of the district which includes the Foundation. Other than elected Trustee Phillip Yarbrough who opposes the Saudi deal, they have been tone deaf and silent.
There are just too many questions and not enough answers. It's time to forget about this boondoggle and concentrate on something more appropriate.
Students in our community might be a good start.
Dr. Barry Resnick, a professor of counseling recently completed his 35th year as a faculty member in the Rancho Santiago CCD. Since 2012 he has served as the President of the District's Faculty Association (FARSCCD).