CALIFORNIA'S COLLEGIATE FUNNY MONEY CONTINUES: How City College simply flipped your cash bills for a ballot-measure jackpot

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By G.W. Schulz

It must suck to be a celebrity reporter for the Chronicle and have your stories buried on page B9. The Chron’s BALCO star Lance Williams has quietly moved into new territory, most recently with a pretty good little scoop on campaign-corruption problems at San Francisco’s City College.

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Williams reported first on April 6 that a top official at the school had diverted a $10,000 lease payment belonging to City College (taxpayers, in other words) to the campaign coffers of a committee formed in 2005 to convince voters they should authorize a quarter-of-a-billion dollars in bonds for the school so it could build some new stuff. Follow-ups in the Chron haven't been immediately easy to find, but they're nonetheless interesting.

City College has been building new stuff since 1997, and 2005 was the third time they returned to you asking for more money. Spending money on community colleges is good. Spending your money to bankroll a campaign committee formed solely to convince you to spend more money on community colleges is probably illegal.

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The first story noted that administrators had also directed a $20,000 lease payment made by a contractor doing very recent business with City College into the same committee’s bank account, but that money was returned several months later. The businesses making the payments were told to just fill their checks out to the campaign fund and bypass the school entirely, even though the school was where the money was supposed to go. When Williams started making calls to City College administrators asking about the remaining $10,000, that money was returned, too.

Williams also identified several businesses that made contributions of $10,000 or more to the campaign committee "within days of negotiating contracts with the community college."

The story immediately caused a stir among trustees, who organized a special meeting and promised an investigation. (Boy, reporters in town got that e-mail fast; a second special meeting occurred this past Tuesday.) Not a lot was accomplished during the first packed meeting at the school's Gough Street campus, however, save for trustee Rodel Rodis trying to blow the whole thing off by angrily complaining that the Chron distorted the contractors’ motives in giving to the committee and we all have to stand together to defend City College against these newspaper attacks. (We’re not making this up. Rodis prefaced this all by saying he was actually a friend of Williams, but generally throughout both meetings maintained an expression of complete contempt for the whole process. Read the minutes when they’re published.)

Trustee Natalie Berg complained that ethics rules are just so complex, it’s easy to imagine some mistakes were made. “These campaign laws change every time I turn around,” she moaned. Remember, she's an elected official. Trustee Julio Ramos said it was important to think about what was at stake: “$250 million as opposed to $10,000.” Ethics rules aren't really designed to consider comparative quantity. They're ethics rules. But why quibble?

So were the actions of the school's administrators kinda sketchy? Uh, yeah, admits Chancellor Philip Day. From a letter he gave attendees to the first special meeting:

“Did the campaign ask entities that have contracts with City College to contribute to the bond campaign? Was any money given to the campaign that should have gone directly to City College? The answer to these questions is yes.”

Day says all of this was a big mistake on the part of a “relatively” new vice chancellor. Silly vice chancellor, gettin’ all absent-minded 'bout ethics rules! He should be sent to study hall dressed in a little dunce cap! Or maybe he should be included in the scope of any resulting ethics investigation to make sure he’s just bein’ silly! Oops!

The next question, of course, is why was the $20,000 payment returned in 2005 but not the $10,000 if all of this was a little ol' mistake?

At a follow-up meeting Tuesday night (this time in front of a much smaller audience), the trustees wrangled with Robert’s Rules of Order and the Brown Act (open-meetings law) for a couple of hours before finally voting to commit $75,000 to an independent investigation of the 2005 bond election campaign committee. The chancellor said at the meeting that the "administration is fully supportive of going forward with this investigation. Totally.” Experts interviewed by the Chron, while we're at it, said that the $10,000 transaction “appeared to violate state laws against misusing public funds and laundering political donations.”

But there’s also a problem right away with the investigation the trustees have proposed. Well before the trustees ever voted to send the last bond to a ballot in November of 2005, they activated the Committee to Support Our City College, which paid for poll research from David Binder costing, according to these records, about $25,000 total.

They didn’t officially announce until mid-August of 2005 that they were going to the ballot. But by September, the campaign committee had already spent $120,000 and was $40,000 in debt.

Around the time the campaign committee was dispatched to promote the bonds, the trustees created a group among themselves to oversee this committee. It included four of the trustees: Rodel Rodis, Lawrence Wong, Natalie Berg and Johnny Carter, the last of whom is no longer on the board. Berg, for her part, admitted during the first meeting two weeks ago that some campaign funds were solicited from donors at her private work office.

Tuesday’s vote not only commits $75,000 to an independent investigation. It also appoints an ad hoc committee made up of trustees that will have final say in who is hired as the independent investigator, which means three trustees already could have a serious conflict of interest, because they were charged with overseeing the committee in the first place believed to have committed questionable acts involving approximately $30,000 -- and maybe more -- in taxpayer dollars.

During Tuesday’s meeting, only trustees John Rizzo and Milton Marks seemed interested even in the idea of vigorously probing all three election cycles -- 1997, 2001 and 2005 -- to ensure there were no other places through which taxpayer funds were used to fund the Committee to Support Our City College.

The follow-up story from Williams on Wednesday, while buried in the local section, did clearly explain that three trustees “expressed concerns over the college’s admitted practices of tapping college vendors and contractors for campaign donations for bond measures.”

But because of some glitches in how the resolution authorizing the investigation was worded, and because the trustees didn’t wish to reconvene later after the language could have been adjusted so that the investigation would cover all three election cycles, it’s today unclear whether any part of the 1997 and 2001 City College bond elections will be fully and independently investigated, even though the college’s administration admits that school funds were improperly spent on the activities of the Committee to Support Our City College in 2005.

Chancellor Day’s big justification for all of this funny money? From his letter:

"It was all for the bond campaign, to rebuild City College. The contribution to the campaign has been returned. The funds will now go to the college where they belong."

The problem is plural, chancellor. Contributions. Two sets of funds were identified specifically in the Chron’s story, and more dollars were linked to contractors doing business with the school. Selective memory, we guess. And we’re not even sure quite how plural the whole thing is, because no one seems genuinely interested now in going back to 1997 or 2001 to find out if the school's administrators decided it was okay then to spend your money convincing you to let them spend a whole bunch of your money.

Guess we’ll just have to look more closely in the future at how well the bond money itself is being spent. That’s the least we can do. So, trustee Rodis, let's indeed all come together, hold hands, and defend against the improper use of taxpayer funds. I'll buy the beer.

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