Rancho Santiago Chancellor: Official Taking Gifts From Contractors Is ‘Good Networking’

Chancellor Raul Rodriguez speaks to Santa Ana College faculty last year. (Photo Credit: Liz Monroy of the college's el Don newspaper)

When a Voice of OC investigation revealed how a vice chancellor at the Rancho Santiago Community College District took thousands of dollars in gifts from district contractors, good government experts said the gift taking was excessive and showed that reform is needed.

But district Chancellor Raul Rodriguez disagrees. In fact, he has privately voiced approval of the practice, a position that contradicts some on the district’s Board of Trustees who support a gift ban or at least stricter rules on taking gifts.

At the center of the controversy is Peter Hardash, the vice chancellor of business services who oversees construction and other facilities related contracts. According to a Voice of OC tally, Hardash took nearly $3,500 in gifts between 2013 and 2014, mainly from district contractors.

The gifts were primarily in the form of golf outings. Hardash has received tournament tickets and free rounds of golf from at least 13 contractors doing business – or looking to do business – with the district.

Meanwhile, the companies have received upwards of $12 million in contracts and contract increases recommended by Hardash and his department. In some cases vendors were granted contract increases just days after they gave Hardash gifts.

District administrators refused to answer questions about the gift taking. But emails obtained by Voice of OC under the California Public Records Act provide a window into how Rodriguez feels about the issue.

Rodriguez characterized the gift taking as “standard relationship building and good networking.”

“Peter is a golfer. He likes to golf,” Rodriguez wrote in an email to the district’s media consultant, George Urch. “If he can get someone to pay for his golf outing I don’t care as long as he reports it and uses vacation time when he goes.”

(Click here to read Rodriguez’s email.)

Good government experts – and even a high-level official at a neighboring college district – have lambasted such gift taking as attempts by contractors to curry favor with public officials as they decide on awarding taxpayer-funded contracts.

But Rodriguez in his email dismissed such theories regarding Hardash as little more than circumstantial evidence “that isn’t tied to anything real or substantial.” Part of his reasoning was the contracting decisions aren’t made by Hardash, but by employees working for Hardash, he wrote.

“Our system is set up so no single individual makes decisions or wields a majority of influence on the hiring decisions that we make with regards to contractors and vendors,” Rodriguez wrote.

But Rodriguez didn’t address the fact that Hardash only started disclosing gifts after he was fined by the Fair Political Practices Commission for not disclosing a gift, a strong indication that he previously hadn’t disclosed thousands of dollars more in gifts.

Rodriguez’s email was in response to Urch passing along questions from Voice of OC. Urch, who the district pays $5,000 a month for media advice, said the risk of not answering the questions was a one-sided article. But Rodriguez dismissed that concern.

Instead, he said in his email that the district should “ignore” the reporter because “if we don’t, he will keep probing until he gets something he can twist even further.”

“I would prefer that we save our breath and let [the reporter] do whatever he is going to do rather than feed his jaundiced viewpoint,” Rodriguez wrote.

And although Rodriguez at a Board of Trustees meeting suggested convening a board committee to make recommendations regarding the district’s travel and gift policies, he told Urch in an email that addressing the findings of the articles in detail was a bad idea.

“This is ridiculous!” Rodriguez wrote of trustee John Hanna’s plan to offer a public defense at last month’s board meeting. “Doesn’t Hanna see that getting into this level of detail only perpetuates the issue. You need to tell him to let it go.”

Hanna, who has expressed support for a gift ban, will be heading up the committee to address issues raised in the Voice of OC investigation.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

  • David Zenger

    “Urch, who the district pays $5,000 a month for media advice…”

    That smacks of cronyism right there. Urch is a Democrat operative who also scored big bucks from Larry Agran’s Great Pork fiasco.

  • LFOldTimer

    “Rodriguez characterized the gift taking as “standard relationship building and good networking.”
    Is this where we are as a nation? It’s no longer shameful? In fact, today it’s considered a job skill by the Chancellor? So can I assume that the more public officials take in gifts from contractors they do business with on behalf of the taxpayers the more stellar their performance evaluations at the end of the year, perhaps justifying a nice bonus? Praise the Lord. I’m damn glad that I’m as old as I am.

  • Thomas Anthony Gordon

    I’d love to know who approved the spending of $60,000 per year for a media consultant while the students have to sell hot dogs to raise $8000 in order to keep a math classes door open.

  • Thomas Anthony Gordon

    This is a Chancellor and Board who despite having the $198 Million Measure Q bond pass on November 6 2012 has never appointed a taxpayer advocate to a bond oversight committee as required by law.
    To expect this Chancellor or Board to pass an immediate ban on the acceptance of any and all gifts after reading the emails showing the contempt for the public and the medias attempts to expose their poor money management is doubtful at best.

    • mutheta

      Thomas, it’s re-election season…of course they will pass a ban and they’ll grandstand until the cows come home about how they are going to be watchdogs for the community. We’ll hear the same drivel – “we’re here for the students”. Blah, blah, blah.

      I’m going to puke.

  • Shirley L. Grindle

    Raul Rodriguez should ask himself why government officials are given gifts by vendors and contractors who do business with them. Of course – it is to curry favor with the official. Orange County enacted a Gift Ban in 1992 in order to stop the wining and dining of County government employees and officials. The Rcho. Santiago Community College District Board should adopt a similar Gift Ban in spite of Rodriguez’s misplaced assessment of ethical behavior.

    • mutheta

      Shirley, there is something wrong with this picture. You are suggesting this public institution adopt a no-gift ban two decades after the county did so and against the wishes of the District’s chancellor.

      • Shirley L. Grindle

        I am suggesting they adopt a “gift ban” – the sooner the better.

        • mutheta

          I made a correction as “no-gift” ban makes little sense. My point, however is this is 2016 and I find it deplorable that this board has to even discuss not accepting gifts. It should be a given, but it’s obvious the chancellor seems to think accepting gifts is “good networking”. The Rancho District is a cesspool of problems.

      • Shirley L. Grindle

        My error – I meant adopt a “gift ban” not a “no-Gift” ban. Thanks for pointing this out. I think it is clear that I meant the acceptance of gifts is highly unethical.

  • Greg Diamond

    Adam, sometimes I think that you have the most fun job in the whole county.

  • mutheta

    Jesse00, why should Rodriguez follow the lead of South County or even manage the Rancho District following acceptable practices? He has at least four board members who support him so he can do as he pleases without regard to what is right, legal or ethical.

  • jesse00

    This is very questionable leadership on the part of Rodriguez. Any leader interested in some semblance of integrity would have followed South County’s lead and banned gifts. Instead, he turns a blind eye to malfeseance? A crisis of confidence indeed.

  • mutheta

    Ron, I respectfully disagree with you. Chancellor Rodriguez must stay. As long as he remains, the better chance to run out the four incumbents – Alvarez, Barrios, Solorio and Yanez this coming November. As long as the board members continue to condone Rodriguez’ arrogance and lack of ethics, the better chance the citizens of this community have to make a change and turn over the board.

  • Ron

    I don’t know what’s worse: the Chancellor’s cavalier attitude about ethics or the fact that they are paying $5000/mi. to a PR person for a District that PR folks on staff. Seriously, force students to have a bake sale for books or pay $5000 to an uneccessary pisition. This Chancellor nees to go.