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The Rancho Santiago Community College District is moving closer to new restrictions on public officials taking gifts from contractors and tighter rules on travel reimbursements.
Among the restrictions considered by the Board of Trustees’ policy committee Monday, were a total ban on gifts from district contractors, a cap on travel reimbursements for hotel rooms and prohibiting the district from paying for airline seat upgrades.
District leaders are considering the policy changes following a Voice of OC investigation that showed how officials travel in luxury on the taxpayers’ dime, billing the district and related nonprofits for upgrades in airline seats, expensive hotel suites and occasionally overbilling the district for cost reimbursements.
The investigation also revealed how the district’s vice chancellor of business services, Peter Hardash, took nearly $3,500 in gifts between 2013 and 2014, mainly from district vendors or companies looking to do business with the district, and sometimes within days of awarding those businesses contracts. The gifts were primarily in the form of golf outings.
While the committee made some progress Monday, the parameters of any future rules aren’t yet defined. Board Trustee Larry Labrado and Chancellor Raul Rodriguez expressed concerns about restricting gifts, though they didn’t outright oppose the idea.
Rodriguez supported limits on gifts, but said the foundation might have a tougher time raising money if its officials couldn’t participate in golf tournaments sponsored by vendors. And Labrado said he was recently invited to a golf game by a staffer at a district vendor who he said wasn’t “political,” but who he had known previously.
“I don’t know if I’m sure I want to do a complete ban. There’s just people we know who happen to be friends and happen to be lobbyists,” Labrado said. “I’m not totally opposed to it, but I’m not totally for it.”
“I think clarity is good. I think limitations are good. I’m with Larry… to ban it outright I think is problematic for us raising money internally,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez’s tepid support for gift restrictions contradicts statements he’s made internally over email to the district’s media consultant. In that email, Rodriguez said taking gifts from district contractors is “good networking.”
Trustee John Hanna, who chairs the committee, has been pushing hardest for new rules. In addition to a ban on gifts from businesses and individuals doing business with the district, he said there should be regular oversight of the statements of economic interest – the forms public officials are required to file disclosing gifts and income — filed by district officials.
“There needs to be bright line rules and guidelines, and those guidelines are important because you can’t discipline someone if they’re doing something legal, even if it appears stupid, even if it appears questionable ethically,” Hanna said.
Hanna has pledged to refund the district $136.26 after overbilling on meals and a hotel stay.
And he seemed perplexed when he asked about implementing a daily meal per diem for staff, only to be told that the rule already exists, raising questions about receipts Rodriguez turned in for reimbursement, including one for a nearly $100 dinner he shared with a vice chancellor.
As things stand now, the only district official overseeing the filing of statements of economic interest, also known as form 700s, is Hardash, the same official under scrutiny for taking gifts. Hardash is the county’s contact for the filing, but he doesn’t scrutinize the forms, according to staffers who attended the committee meeting.
Coincidentally or not, county supervisors Chairman Todd Spitzer criticized the district at Tuesday’s regular supervisors board meeting for what he claimed were inadequate disclosures on a list the district is required to submit designating which officials are required to file statements of economic interest.
“It’s making it impossible to be able to track the changes,” Spitzer said.
Rancho Santiago officials are set to begin drafting the new rules, but also said they want to see how other agencies handle the issue.
South Orange County Community College District Vice Chancellor of Business Services Debra Fitzsimons had told Voice of OC that her district doesn’t allow staffers to accept gifts. But according to Rodriguez, Rancho Santiago staff asked about that and were told by their counterparts at South Orange County that Fitzsimons was “mistaken” about the policy and “hemmed and hawed” when confronted about her comments to Voice of OC.
(Update: Fitzsimons in an email after this article ran said the South Orange County Community College District does indeed have a no gifts policy. The policy states that “district employees are not to accept Incentives from any vendor,” including “gifts, incentives, inducements, favors, monetary returns, and rebates either promised or given (“Incentives”) for employee personal benefit,” Fitzsimons wrote. The gifts ban is “strictly enforced,” she said.)
Later on at the meeting of the full board, residents concerned about what they had read in the Voice of OC articles voiced their sentiments during public comments.
Carole Walters, from the group Concerned Orange Taxpayers and a 47-year resident of Orange, said she had “witnessed first-hand” the corruption at Orange Unified School District in the 1980s that led to charges against board members. The board members were found liable by an Orange County grand jury for neglecting to reign in a district staffer who was awarding contracts in exchange for gifts.
“Nothing, however, in all those years has been as inexcusable as your actions. Your greed, secrecy, and most disgusting, your arrogance has no place in our community,” Walters told the board. “We of the Concerned Orange Taxpayers will be making it our goal to remove each of you from office. Shame on each of you.”
Reporter Nick Gerda contributed to this article.