Chancellor's lavish spending went beyond travel

November 23, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
The ABC7 News I-Team received a lot of email about Monday night's I-Team investigation into travel spending at the San Jose Evergreen Community College District. But, there's even more to the story.

There's been strong reaction to the story about the chancellor and her staff using taxpayer money to travel and sightsee all over the world during a profound budget crisis. After going through thousands of receipts, we found out that was not all they spent your money on.

It's a good life involving luxury hotels, fine art, expensive meals, exclusive clubs, and never even having to pay for a cup of coffee if you don't want to. You can even take a friend along. It's all good and it's all free with the public picking up the tab. Chancellor Rosa Perez makes almost $300,000 plus a monthly stipend for expenses.

It took months, but the I-Team went through four years of district accounting records and found that in addition to her salary and a $600 a month expense account, Perez still received more than $130,000 for expenses like meals, mileage and a whole lot more.

There were things like a $5,000 membership for Perez and three of her executive staff to join the exclusive Silicon Valley Capital Club. Receipts show they enjoyed a $1,100 meal and on another date, she spent $200 on food and wine, all with her district credit card.

"It's basically a corporate credit card, like just spend as you go, keep everything you want," says student Colin Henry.

Perez buys tables at social events for herself, staff and board members. The I-Team totaled up $16,500 worth of tables at balls, tributes and red carpet galas. These events are often reimbursed as "conference expenses."

She also treated herself to symphony tickets. In 2008, Perez bought a $3,900 painting by an artist from her native El Salvador at a gallery in San Francisco. It is currently on display at the Evergreen Campus.

"If we were all doing fine that would be one thing," says adjunct professor Amy Roberts. "But, we don't need to decorate the walls if we can't feed the people."

Perez would not agree to an interview about her spending. The district provided Vice Chancellor Jeanine Hawk.

Noyes: "If you needed to cover a wall, wouldn't you get a student to paint a painting?

Hawk: "We actually do that. We do acquire student art as well as fine art, so, by professional artists."

Noyes: "I'm just saying though, in this day and age, doesn't that seem a little extravagant?"

Hawk: "I don't think so. I think we try and create a holistic experience here for our students. That includes providing them the opportunity to participate in global education in the arts."

Perez also bought things for her home, almost $2,000 for home furnishings from the Bombay Company, including a $1,700 desk. She also bought three printers and spent $432 at Bose Electronics, no receipt. In fact, there are a lot of missing receipts. But, there are receipts for $500 worth of computer tote bags.

Internal documents show staff were questioning her spending. In one e-mail, an accounting clerk questions two Sony laptops for the chancellor and her partner Language Arts Dean Bayinaah Jones. Her boss answers, "Bayinaah was given approval and there's not much we can do about the chancellor."

The only authority over the chancellor is the elected board of trustees. Randy Okamura is the board's president.

Noyes: "We have emails by staff, flagging expensive purchases and asking questions, yet the purchases still go through. I wonder why that is."

Okamura: "I don't know."

Noyes: "Is this a new topic for you?"

Okamura: "For me, it's new, yeah."

But, Okamura's name is on many of the checks.

"The um, board of trustees has no idea how that money is going out," says Don Kawashima.

Kawashima was the foreman on the Santa Clara civil grand jury investigating college executive pay. He says that what the I-Team found is common.

"They felt like the superintendents or the chancellors were the CEO's of companies, and that whatever the company was making, they could spend," he says.

Perez also likes to stay at luxury hotels when she travels, such as the Mansfield in New York, the Benson in Portland, the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego, the Arizona Grand Resort in Phoenix and the Ahwahnee in Yosemite.

But, she also stays in nice hotels a little closer to home. Records show two stays at the high-end San Jose Fairmont -- $262 to attend district graduation ceremonies and $337 for a room after a late board meeting. She also spent $1,500 for a room at the San Francisco Hilton, just 11 minutes from her house.

"This is taxpayer money," I-Team reporter Dan Noyes explained to cosmetology student Charisse Popejoy.

"Exactly," she responded, "Which is not appropriate for that type of lavish living."

Perez even charges the district for cups of coffee at Starbucks. And, on another occasion, for a pack of Mentos candy.

Noyes: "It seems a little unseemly that she would charge for Mentos when she gets a $600 monthly stipend for expenses. Is she working the system?"

Hawk: "I believe that those expenditures are for supplies for the office."

Chancellor Perez took an early retirement five days after the I-Team requested an interview for this report. Hawk is filling in for now. She says the district is bringing in an outside investigator to look into the questions the I-Team raised.

Students the I-Team interviewed say they could have put those education dollars to better use. Evergreen College charges about $1,500 for a two-year general studies program. The chancellor's $130,000 expense account could have paid for more than 80 students.


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