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Kathy Kramer will leave her post as CEO of the state-run Orange County Fairgrounds next year when she assumes the same role for the Central Washington State Fair, which announced her hiring Tuesday.
Voice of OC reported earlier this month that Kramer has been sitting on the fundraising board for Vanguard University – a private Christian college across the street — while the OC fairgrounds allocated thousands of state dollars to the college through partnerships, contracts and sponsorship deals.
Critics called Kramer’s membership of the board a possible conflict of interest.
Kramer didn’t respond to Voice of OC phone requests for comment but was quoted in the Washington fair agency’s statement as saying she’s “truly looking forward to working with the board, staff and community to move this organization to the next level.”
Robert Ruiz, Chair of the fairgrounds’ Board of Directors, acknowledged Kramer’s upcoming departure in a Tuesday phone interview, and said the agency will issue a statement Wednesday morning.
“As of now, she (Kramer) is still the CEO,” Ruiz said before adding that the Fair Board will be having a closed session meeting on Thursday “with all the directors and hopefully we’ll have more answers after that.”
The Board will meet in closed session at the Oct. 24 meeting to consider the evaluation of Kramer’s performance as CEO, according to the agenda for the meeting.
Kramer will replace the Central Washington State Fair’s current President and CEO, Greg Stewart, on Feb. 1 next year. That fair is based in Yakima, Washington.
In a phone interview, Stewart said he didn’t know when exactly Kramer started discussions with his agency, and that staff “exhaustively” reviewed the controversies around Kramer during her time as OC Fairgrounds CEO “and were satisfied with the answers.”
Stewart said he didn’t know when Kramer started discussions with staff and the board to take over his role. He’s retiring after 48 years at the agency.
“We’re very fortunate to have somebody with Kathy’s experience. I’ve known her for a number of years. And I was pleasantly surprised to be told by the board that she was selected as a candidate and selected as my replacement,” said Stewart. “She’s a really capable lady and well thought-of in the industry.”
Kramer joined the OC Fairgrounds – officially known as the OC Fair and Events Center — in 2015. Since then, she’s faced a number of scrutinies in her role as CEO.
State auditors in 2017 revealed they uncovered a potentially illegal severance agreement with a fired employee that led to an overpayment of nearly $75,000.
This prompted the OC Fairgrounds Vice President of Finance Adam Carleton to publicly confront Kramer at a Board of Directors meeting about the overpayments after she suspended him in 2018 for refusing to recoup the payments from a former employee without a legal opinion from state human resources attorneys.
Fair officials later hired a private investigator to look into Carleton.
In 2017, Kramer joined the fundraising board for Vanguard University, according to IRS financial statements. The board’s mission, according to the disclosures, is to support the university “through fundraising and management of the endowment. Foundation directors are distinguished members of the community, primarily of Orange County, who support the mission of vanguard as ambassadors and donors.”
The fairgrounds sponsored Vanguard’s “Fantasia” holiday event for $5,000 in 2017, according to fairgrounds Communications Director Terry Moore.
In 2018, the fairgrounds entered into a contract with Vanguard for $75,000 under a sponsorship agreement where the school would cross-promote events and have their theatre program perform at the fair, among other agreements.
And the fairgrounds’ 2019 fiscal year budget has $25,000 allocated for the university, labelled in the budget as “community engagement spending.”
In response to Voice of OC’s initial story on Kramer’s membership of the fundraising board, Emilie Perkins — a spokesperson who reached out on behalf of the university in an email — said Vanguard currently has not received that $25,000.
The OC fairgrounds’ business dealings with Vanguard also prompted the state to look into whether or not the contracts violate state anti-discrimination laws.
Students who violate Vanguard’s policies against same-sex relationships can be subject to disciplinary action, including expulsion, according to the university’s student handbook.
The state has refused to confirm or deny whether they’re still looking into the fairgrounds’ relationship with the college.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.