Lavish spending continues at SJ community college

March 3, 2010 9:13:48 PM PST
The ABC7 I-Team first broke the story of how administrators at a South Bay community college were using school funds to pay for lavish trips and perks. At the same time they were cutting classes and raising tuition. Now, a new report shows how even more money was going out the door.

The question is whether or not you have a right to know how the San Jose Evergreen Community College spends your money. The college says in many cases the answer is no. It has been a battle, but the I-Team has continued to investigate.

It turns out even more things went on district credit cards and some people in Sacramento are now demanding they give the public access and answers

How would you spend thousands of dollars, no questions asked? What about a trip to China, Austria or a week in Scotland? How about all three? That is what one college administrator did, with the public picking up most of the bill.

It was previously brought to light how San Jose Evergreen Community College District Chancellor Rosa Perez and her staff spent public tax money on exotic trips to places like El Salvador, Vietnam and Thailand. She retired days before that story was aired.

The college president is the No. 2 job under the chancellor and it also comes with benefits. Since he took the job in 2005, President David Coon has traveled to Scotland to observe a high school program and accompanied his staff on a trip to Salzburg, Austria for a symposium on global awareness.

They also enjoyed some down time.

Noyes: "I just want you to understand that we're doing another report."

Coon: "I understand."

Noyes: "We want to make sure we have a balanced story."

Coon: "I understand and I have nothing to hide."

In 2009, Coon went to China as part of a Silicon Valley sister cities delegation. Documents show he used district money to buy a plane ticket, tour package, gifts and a $160 limo ride from SFO to home.

Noyes: "Is it a stretch to go to China? I'm really trying to understand the benefit to students."

Coon: "Again, I'm going to refer you. I'm not going to answer questions. I don't want to get cross with my chancellor or the board, so I wish you well on your story and I look forward to having the opportunity at some point to respond to your investigation."

Noyes: "And the retreats to the golf club and that sort of thing?"

Coon: "Thank you."

Coon also booked executive retreats at the Dolce Hayes Mansion and the Ranch Golf Club, spent thousands on an exclusive membership at the Silicon Valley Capital Club and bought $1,500 tables at gala events for staff and board members.

San Jose City College President Michael Burke was spending money too. He stayed in San Francisco hotels during conferences and charged the district for a Rotary Club membership and meals, including hundreds of dollars worth of fees for missed meetings. He also liked the Dolce Hayes Mansion where the college was once billed $3,500 for a math faculty retreat.

Both presidents Coon and Burke traveled to El Salvador with Chancellor Perez last year.

Burke left the district after the I-Team's first story aired and is now a college president in Wisconsin.

ABC7 tried to ask acting Chancellor Jeanine Hawke about the expenses

Noyes: "Explain the benefit to me for students, for the trip to China. What benefit was that for students?"

Hawke: "You know, if you want an interview please contact the PIO and we'll schedule something. Thank you."

Noyes: "You'll do that for us?"

Hawke: "I've done it before."

The I-Team got an email the next day saying Hawke would not do an interview. Incidentally, we did not get a chance to ask her about a piece of art that first caught our attention when we found a $3,900 charge from a gallery on Chancellor Perez's credit card.

The I-Team asked Hawke about it last fall.

"Just about every community college district that I know has an art collection and at times we procure art to be part of our permanent collection," she said in October 2009.

It turns out Evergreen Valley College is building quite a collection. That $3,900 was just for the frame. The final bill included $18,000 for the art for a grand total of $22,000. And, the school paid for it with bond money, that's money that voters approve for projects like fixing up classrooms.

Teachers who spoke off-camera say they are too afraid to speak out, but they echo the sentiments of digital arts professor Ciaran MacGowan, who felt he needed to stand up.

"My conscience speaks irrespective of job security or not," he told ABC7.

MacGowan says the administration is not being honest with faculty and he does not trust them to clean house.

"You can't ask O.J. Simpson to investigate himself. It doesn't work. Look what happened with the banks and AIG, to regulate themselves? Absolute utter nonsense," he said. "We as a professional, vocational, caring body of people in education need better than that."

Some big names in Sacramento agree.

"I have not heard one individual within the administration, let alone the board of trustees, saying that there's something wrong," said Senator Leland Yee.

Yee is especially concerned that the district's non-profit foundation refuses to turn financial documents over to ABC7. The foundation is set up to raise money for scholarships but ABC7 found they contributed thousands to fund overseas trips for Chancellor Perez and her staff.

They received $10,000 for the trip to Salzburg alone. Just how much money in total remains unknown.

"These auxiliary organizations out of the community college in fact, are subject to the public open records act," said Yee. "So, for me to, and for me to hear that a foundation executive in San Jose says that that's not true is just unbelievable."

Lee is pushing a state bill that would force college foundations to open up their books for good. And now, State Chancellor Jack Scott has his eye on the district too.

"I'm not aware of many community colleges that have that extensive travel," he said. "I want to know exactly what the trips were and I assume they were paid for by the foundation. But all those facts will come to our attention after we have a fiscal investigation."

He has sent his fiscal SWAT team known as FCMAT down to San Jose.

The I-Team asked the district to provide all the documents from the investigation so far. They sent their agreement with FCMAT, most of it blacked out. We also received a copy directly from FCMAT and there is good reason they did not want anyone to see it.

The state is concentrating on several serious allegations, potential fraud missapropriation of funds or other illegal practices that may threaten the fiscal integrity of the district.

Professor MacGowan is hoping the state investigation will shine a light on everyone who has taken advantage of the system and help the college readjust its priorities.

"I am shocked and horrified, and would need immediate action from the board and the administration to cut those threads and sort that out long before they go chasing the tea maker to throw her out of a job or some mid-level administrative person, or for that matter me. And, I serve 140 students," he said.

There is also a second investigation underway. The district hired the same investigator involved in the Oscar Grant BART shooting to come in and inspect their records as well. They have refused to give The I-Team any information about that.

The I-Team has also asked for Chancellor Rosa Perez's retirement package. Their lawyer wrote saying it is in the public's best interest not to disclose those records.

You can be sure the I-Team will continue to follow up.


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