Peralta College Board Begins Investigations

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday July 23, 2009 - 09:40:00 AM

Peralta Community College District’s board of directors moved quickly to look into charges of district improprieties raised in last week’s series of Bay Area News Group articles, beginning an investigation by their own inspector general and calling on the state chancellor of the California Community Colleges to appoint a special investigator to look into the charges as well. 

Peralta’s inspector general works directly for the board and not the district’s chancellor’s office, making the Peralta board one of the few—if not the only—local elected bodies with an oversight employee independent of the agency the elected officials are responsible for overseeing. 

The board resolution said the state investigator would have “unfettered access to [district] records, documents, personnel [and] financial information.” Results of the dual investigations are expected to be released to the public in the early fall, and board members said they would reserve judgment and defer any possible action until that time. 

In a series of four articles published July 12, the Oakland Tribune charged, among other things, that “District Chancellor Elihu Harris helped steer a $940,000 no-bid contract to one of his business partners without disclosing the relationship to district trustees,” that Harris broke district rules by raising the pay of “dozens” of district managers in the last year, that Harris himself took pay for which he may not have been entitled, and that district leaders—including some members of the board—“have spent thousands of tax dollars on lavish hotels, East Coast trips and even clothing in the past 18 months.” 

Board President Bill Withrow said that Harris properly noted his relationship with Oakland businessperson Mark A. Lindquist—with whom Harris operates two businesses—on a Peralta disclosure form long before Harris awarded Lindquist the contract in 2007 to oversee the renovations of buildings at Laney College. But Withrow said there are hundreds of such disclosure documents on file at Peralta that are not generally or easily referred to when district contracts let out, and he is proposing now that the district set up a database from the disclosure documents so that the district can certify that “there are no apparent conflicts of interest” when contracts are awarded in the future. 

The money for the oversight contract and for the Laney College renovations came from Peralta’s Measure A, a $390 million bond measure passed by Alameda County voters in June of 2006. 

The Bay Area News Group article stated that there was “no evidence” that Harris personally benefited from the Lindquist contract. 

Withrow said that while the Lindquist contract was awarded by Harris “on a no-bid basis that is both legal and universally exercised,” the district’s inspector general is looking into whether any aspect of the contract itself was “illegal, unethical, or contrary to board policy.” 

One of the Bay Area Newsgroup articles said that “several trustees” were “upset the chancellor had granted the [management] raises without first bringing them to the board,” adding that board president Bill Withrow did not know about one of the raises to Peralta General Counsel Thuy Nguyen “until asked about it” by reporters from the Bay Area Newsgroup. 

In remarks at Tuesday’s meeting, Harris admitted that there may have been an error in at least some of the management raises. 

Saying that he had given raises to managers over the past six years “that may have been in abrogation of board policy and if so, I apologize, and there will certainly be a correction of that action. But I only did it with the idea of being fair.” 

Harris did not say how that correction might take place. One of the Bay Area NewsGroup articles said that earlier this year, the board privately reviewed the issue and agreed to keep the raises in place. 

The district chancellor said that he had approved raises to faculty and staff in 2004 and “found more money” for such raises in 2006 and 2007, but added that Peralta District management employees “make 14 percent less than the average around the state. … I’ve been trying to move the managers slowly and surely towards equity. … I don’t want you to look at the fact of whether or not the managers got raises, but whether or not they are being paid fairly.” 

Several Peralta district staff members and union representatives speaking at Tuesday’s meeting said they were particularly disturbed at the managers’ raises coming at a time when lower-classified district employees were being forced to deal with the effects of district budget cuts. 

While one of the articles said that “Harris declined numerous requests for interviews within the past three months,” Harris on Tuesday night called the articles “a five- month inquiry that ended in four articles for which I have not had a chance to respond. I hope people give me that opportunity whether it is in a public forum or privately, because certainly the public deserves explanations.”