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Faulty conflict-of-interest guidelines at the County Office of Education allowed public employees to avoid disclosing gifts.
Top employees at the San Diego County Office of Education have been allowed to avoid reporting gifts despite a California law that is supposed to ensure that the public can peek at who is paying for meals, handing out baseball tickets or giving other gifts to influential government employees.
The office has allowed employees to report their income without revealing gifts, an exception that could obscure important information about who is wining and dining public officials. California law says that gifts are income, no different than the other earnings that top employees already must report on annual statements of economic interests.
The Fair Political Practices Commission urged the County Office of Education to change its guidelines after being alerted to the issue by voiceofsandiego.org earlier this month. Depending on how long the office has failed to report gifts, its employees may need to report gifts they received years ago. Office spokesman Jim Esterbrooks said the agency is updating its guidelines to comply.
Gifts have played a role in a contentious lawsuit filed by a former employee that alleges free meals contributed to a “culture of corruption” at the agency that steered County Office of Education business to specific law firms.
For instance, employees who help oversee legal work for school districts regularly accepted free lunches from an attorney who is frequently hired by their department, according to testimony by employee John Vincent taken as part of the lawsuit. Attorney Dan Shinoff usually paid for the meals, which happened more than once a month, Vincent said.
Diane Crosier, who directs the office’s risk management department, was one of the employees that accepted the meals, according to the testimony. Her department controls millions of dollars in legal work for school districts across the county. While Crosier does not decide which attorneys to assign to each legal case, she oversees Rick Rinear, the worker who does. Rinear also went to lunch with Shinoff from time to time, along with other employees, Vincent said in the deposition this year.
Crosier is required to reveal her economic interests to the public because she helps make decisions with a financial impact for a public agency. The County Office of Education does not require Rinear or the other employees to do so.
California law typically requires employees like Crosier to reveal gifts worth $50 or more from a single source annually, so frequent free lunches would likely need to be reported.
Yet Crosier did not report any lunches with Shinoff. VOSD sought to learn why Crosier hadn’t revealed the lunches and learned that the office does not require most of its employees to report gifts.
That makes it impossible for the public to gauge whether Crosier or other office employees are getting gifts that could compromise their objectivity.
Accepting the gifts also appears to violate a County Office of Education regulation that states that no employee should accept personal gifts from people or companies selling services or supplies to the public agency, except for promotional items like calendars that everyone gets for free.
Neither Crosier nor the agency responded to questions about the lunches’ cost or whether they are still happening. Nor did they answer whether the gifts violated their own office rules, saying they don’t want to communicate with the press during a lawsuit.
The former employee who is suing the County Office of Education, Rodger Hartnett, specifically names Shinoff’s firm, Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz, as one that got work “based on personal relationships” and not merit. The firm was paid nearly $7 million between 2002 and 2008, dwarfing other firms.
Gifts are only one of the questions that Hartnett has raised. Other issues have emerged from his suit: Shinoff and another attorney from his firm have helped screen potential employees who later oversaw outside attorneys’ work. Another office employee advises her boss on whether to retain attorneys for personnel cases, which routinely leads to work for her husband’s law firm.
The agency counters that Hartnett, who claims he was wrongfully fired for blowing the whistle, was rightfully terminated for negligence, insubordination and dishonesty, according to court documents. Attorney Pamela Lawton Wilson, who represents one of the office employees he named in his suit, called his accusations “an 11th hour smokescreen to obscure the true reasons for his termination” in a legal brief last year.
Hartnett himself testified that Shinoff also gave him lunches, golf games and baseball tickets. He also said he got dinner and free concert tickets from Randy Winet, an attorney from another firm hired by the agency.
Under California law, public employees are allowed to accept gifts. But some workers in influential positions must publicly report what they get, from whom and how much it is worth.
While the County Office of Education has required top employees to fill out forms about their investments and other income, they haven’t had to include gifts they got and who gave them. In fact, no employee except Superintendent Randolph Ward had to list any gifts from vendors or anyone else.
Experts say those guidelines skirt the law. Roman Porter, executive director of the Fair Political Practices Commission, said employees in influential positions who have to disclose their income would also have to report gifts. California public employees typically must include any gifts or series of gifts worth more than $50 from any single source that is relevant to their decisions at work.
“The nightmare scenario is the backroom deal,” said Jessica Levinson, director of political reform for the Center for Governmental Studies. “Someone giving a public official free room and board or giving them a car — and then all of a sudden a ton of business is being thrown their way.”
Gifts may also be completely innocent. But if employees don’t reveal who is giving them gifts, Levinson said, “there’s no red flag for anyone to know why that is problematic. The public has a right to know.”
Accurately tracking how much gifts are worth is also crucial because employees can only accept so many gifts from each source, under state rules. The exact annual dollar limit on gifts has increased every two years and is now $420. Exceeding that limit could lead to a fine of up to $5,000.
While California law allows employees to get gifts, local governments may curb or prohibit them. One County Office of Education rule adopted last year says that employees must not accept gifts that could in any way influence, or even appear to influence, their official decisions.
Other public agencies require employees in similar positions to Crosier to report all of their income, including gifts, from businesses that provide services or supplies that are linked to their job. For instance, the city of San Diego expects its risk management director and deputy directors to reveal gifts from anyone who is located in San Diego or does business here.
To avoid accusations and problems, the Los Angeles County Office of Education bans employees from accepting any gifts from businesses or people that do business with them. The Imperial County Office of Education prohibits employees from taking gifts that seem to harm their impartiality.