The state’s political watchdog won’t be investigating trips to Saudi Arabia by officials of the Rancho Santiago Community College District that were paid for by a Saudi company and the district’s foundation, according to an Aug. 17 letter from the agency.
The review by the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) came after a controversial partnership came to light between the district’s foundation and a Saudi company to help run two technical schools in the country. Critics had slammed district leaders for doing business in a country with an abysmal human rights record.
Ryan Ahari, a former student representative on the district board of trustees, had filed a complaint with the FPPC, alleging that it was illegal for the Saudis to be paying for the trips. Faculty association President Barry Resnick first questioned the trips and whether they were properly disclosed in a Voice of OC guest editorial.
Later, a Voice of OC article quoted a good government expert saying compensation for the trips had to be disclosed on statements of economic interest under the state’s Political Reform Act.
In addition to questions over the legality and disclosure requirements for the trips, foundation leaders had failed to properly approve the deal at a public meeting as required under the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open meetings law for public agencies. Foundation board members later changed course and reapproved the deal at a public meeting.
District Chancellor Raul Rodriguez argued that the travel shouldn’t be considered gifts because they were working trips to conduct school site assessments. According to Rodriguez, the intent was to have the foundation in the future reimburse the Saudi company, Al Khaleej Training and Education, for the travel.
Also, district counsel Robert Feldhake had argued at a foundation board meeting that there was no requirement to disclose compensation for the trips.
In a letter to the FPPC, Feldhake said Rodriguez’s trip last year to Saudi Arabia was paid for by the foundation and therefore not reportable under the law. In another letter, Feldhake states that Vice Chancellor Enrique Perez’s trips to Saudi Arabia in April and May, which were paid for by Al Khaleej and the foundation, weren’t“gifts” because they were required working trips under the foundation’s contractual partnership with the company.
The FPPC accepted the explanations, but stated in a letter that, contrary to Feldhake’s claims, district officials are required to disclose compensation for the trips. Travel paid for by the foundation need to be reported as gifts, but might not be subject to the gift limit, according to the letter.
“Under the Act, generally any travel is presumed to confer some personal benefit on a public official,” the FPPC’s letter states. “Consequently, travel costs paid for by a third party [including the foundation], in other words, an entity or person that is not the public official’s government agency, generally are reportable gifts.”
According to the letter, compensation for trips from third parties have to be reported on a statement of economic interest, unless district leaders follow a very specific six-step process. And even then, the “government employer” still must report the payment for the trips.
George Urch, a district spokesman, said in an emailed statement that district officials plan to disclose compensation for the trips on their statements of economic interest filed to cover this calendar year.
“The Community College District is pleased with the FPPC’s finding that there was no cause for an investigation and very appreciative of their prompt and thorough response,” Urch said, adding that the district “fully intends to honor the FPPC’s guidelines for disclosure when Form 700 documents for 2015 are filed in April of next year.”