Chancellor's lavish travel spending questioned


The ABC7 News I-Team has been investigating and this is the first of two reports. Our investigation took months and the job was not easy. We found missing records, expenses paid with no receipts, and a lack of oversight by administrators and the board.

Despite all this, we've pieced together a picture of what's happening at the San Jose Evergreen Community College District. And, even with a $3.5 million budget cut and thousands of students turned away, the chancellor and a friend spent your money traveling around the world to places like Scotland, El Salvador, Vietnam, Thailand, New York City and West Palm Beach. They were expensive trips for senior administrators and much of it was paid with your tax dollars.

As chancellor at San Jose Evergreen Community College, Rosa Perez makes close to $300,000 a year plus perks, including a lot of travel. And often, she doesn't travel alone.

Shortly after she arrived, Perez hired Dr. Bayinaah Jones as her executive assistant. They're frequently seen photographed together. Jones was soon promoted to a newly-created job as Executive Director of Institutional Effectiveness and recently she became a dean.

Her salary grew too, a $30,000 raise since 2005 to $123,000. Perez and Jones bought a house together in San Francisco in 2007.

Receipts obtained through a public records act request show Perez and Jones took a 10-day trip to Scotland in July of 2007 and paid the bills with district credit cards. The official purpose was to observe how Scotland runs a program for elementary and high school students.

This year, they traveled to El Salvador with other college administrators and students in a study abroad program. The chancellor has family in El Salvador. Some of the people paid their own way, but thousands of dollars came from the San Jose Evergreen Community College Foundation.

The ABC7 I-Team went through a lot of documents and often the money trail ended at the door of the foundation. It's a non-profit set up to raise money for student programs and scholarships. But, the foundation's board refused to let ABC7 see their books, so it's hard to know just how much government and donor money from the foundation goes to scholarships, and how much goes to travel.

ABC7 did get their tax forms. One year, $353,000 was for college administrators to use as they wish and just $88,000 was for student scholarships.

Documents show Perez also goes on a lot of college visits and conferences, more than 70 of them in four years. ABC7 was able to piece together receipts for 18 trips taken by Perez and Jones together to New York, West Palm Beach, Chicago and Miami. The chancellor often pays for Jones' ticket and meals with her district card. Over and over, ticket Perez, ticket Jones, and on many receipts there are notes like one that says "Dinner for Bayinaah and me."

Chancellor Perez refused the I-Team request for an interview. We tried to reach her through staff, visited her office and tried her at home. Instead, the district provided Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services Jeanine Hawk.

Noyes: "I just want to be clear and ask whether this is all business or is it personal?"

Hawk: "There is no evidence to support that there is anything other than business expenditures on any employee's district credit card."

Noyes: "Did Chancellor Perez disclose to the board that she was hiring her roommate for this position?"

Hawk: "I'm not going to address that question."

On the chancellor's watch, other district administrators took four trips to Vietnam, a trip to Thailand and another to Cambodia for student recruitment and study. The district says they took in 141 new Vietnamese students as a result, but they didn't provide documentation that shows they recruited even one.

Records show the cost of a single trip to Vietnam was $112,000. About half of that was paid by participants. $54,000 came from various district funds. Board President Randy Okamura says the trips were an educational opportunity for staff, but also they were hoping to bring out-of-state tuition income to the district.

Noyes: "What was the Thailand component of that trip?"

Okamura: "Thailand was the same thing. We wanted to see if we could expand into Thailand and I don't think anything came out of that one as well."

Noyes: "But, that raises a question. If you can't accept all the students who want to come here, why go off to Thailand trying to get foreign students to come here when you can't serve the people in California?"

Okamura: "It was just as exploratory... Well, we can serve the people of California."

Okamura went on the Vietnam and Thailand trip too, along with board trustee Richard Hobbs and at least 14 other employees. Okamura defends the staff travel, including the 10-day trip to Scotland. He says it's all necessary to develop programs.

Okamura: "The Scotland trip was more of a model thing to serve our students here."

Noyes: "You're going there to learn a model to bring back here?"

Okamura: "Right."

Noyes: "You can't pick up the phone? You can't use email?"

Okamura: "Well, no, quite frankly. I think, the practical thing, you need to see that."

"You would expect that there would be some kind of report that would say, 'This is the reason we're in it, and this is the value that were getting back,' and we didn't hear any of that," Don Kawashima says. "It really is a shame, because every penny that they spend there, they're taking that away from either students or teachers."

Kawashima was the foreman for the Santa Clara civil grand jury looking into school spending this year. It issued a report criticizing the San Jose Evergreen District for excessive travel and conference costs.

"It's money that they think they deserve, and it becomes, it comes to the point where it's almost funny money," he says.

We found lots of other examples of questionable travel including a ticket for a young man named Emery Perez-Odess, bought with Chancellor Perez' card. The district will only say he is not an employee, but Perez can be seen in a district newsletter with her son Emery.

There were also 12 more airline tickets bought with Perez's card with no receipt or reason for travel including one for $1,400 on an international airline, others for trips to Portland and Seattle, and a 5-day layover in Boston. In each of these, the district did not provide any accounting showing whether the expenses were for business or personal travel.

Noyes: "Are you running a tight ship in terms of getting documentation for all purchases?"

Hawk: "What I can say is that our procedures have improved dramatically."

That's no consolation for students. They've seen a 30 percent tuition hike this year, 38 classes cut this semester, and the January intersession canceled altogether.

"And, at a school, the whole mission is behind the students. And, if the students are suffering and administration is benefitting in extravagant ways, that's not fair," says cosmetology student Charisse Popejoy.

"Me and other instructors are just trying to get by, much less the students that we're serving that are just trying to get the basic credentials to make a living," says adjunct professor Amy Roberts.

Five days after ABC7 requested an interview for this report, Chancellor Perez announced her retirement in a letter to the district board saying, "I can never thank you enough for entrusting me with the responsibility to serve as your chancellor."

Staff members say she is leaving for health reasons. Vice Chancellor Jeanine Hawk will fill in until a replacement is found. ABC7 has also learned that the president of Evergreen Valley College, who works with Perez, has taken other trips paid at least in part by the district, to places including Scotland, China and El Salvador.

You can read more about this in the Mercury News on Tuesday. They're using ABC7's research as part of their own investigation. ABC7 will be going deeper into the chancellor's expense accounts Tuesday night on ABC7 News at 6 p.m.

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