Friday, December 03, 2010

There Is a Free Lunch, and They're Not Telling You About It

June 27, 2010
There Is a Free Lunch, and They're Not Telling You About It

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 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 [XXX] 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 [XXX] 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 [XXX]. 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 [XXX]'s firm, [WXYZ], 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: XXX 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...

Hartnett himself testified that [XXX] 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...

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