California School Fiscal Services
|Posted on July 7, 2015 at 11:20 AM|
West Contra Costa school district whistle-blower speaks out
By Theresa Harrington [email protected]
RICHMOND -- Dennis Clay was understandably stressed before he exposed alleged financial mismanagement in the West Contra Costa school district's bond construction program. But now the whistleblower says he feels a sense of relief.
"Most of my personal turmoil happened between January and April," he said, explaining that he spent weeks compiling documents to demonstrate budgets that don't reconcile, overspending on projects and a lack of fiscal controls.
He sent the documents to the school board, which released them to the district's independent Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee. He also delivered them to the Contra Costa County Civil Grand Jury.
The project analyst's efforts paid off. In a special April 29 meeting, school trustees voted to pursue a forensic audit -- a more detailed examination of the records than a regular audit entails -- but have not yet hired a firm to begin that work. The Securities and Exchange Commission has also launched an investigation into his allegations, and the Contra Costa grand jury excoriated the district's management of the bond program in its latest report.
"Once it got past that first special meeting, I felt much lighter," Clay said, during an interview Wednesday. "It was a little bit of an obsession there for four months."
Clay says he alerted Sheri Gamba, the district's associate superintendent for business services, in 2011 about millions of dollars in discrepancies between internal and external reports, that now amount to $60 million unaccounted for in reports to the Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee.
"The budgets were changed to match what was actually spent," he said. "The spending was never controlled by the budgets. It was pretty much the reverse. And that's still true. There is no budget process in place to control spending."
Clay said he decided to go public after he alerted the recently hired bond program finance manager and the bond program engineer, who was moved to that position last year, about the problems. Also playing into his decision to go public was his feeling that an outside auditor he told of the problems didn't adequately investigate his complaints.
The district's process for managing $1.6 billion in voter-approved construction bonds, he said, results in staff who believe they should " ... never have to say 'no' to the board or board requests for projects."
"Once you understand that need," he said, "a lot of things make sense."
Employees who have questioned this process are no longer around, Clay added.
"Frequently, there will be an official budget and for planning purposes, and a different amount that they actually expect the project to end up at," he said. "The official budget does not keep them from spending over it."
Ivette Ricco, chairwoman of the Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee, said she doesn't know Clay, but she appreciates his willingness to speak out about his concerns.
"I think this is a real testament to his character that he feels that this is so important that he just has to step up and say something," she said.
"When you put your job on the line like that, and you know you're going to work with everybody, and it's going to be uncomfortable, that takes a certain amount of courage."
In response to Clay's allegations and a recent Civil Grand Jury report that criticized the district's bond oversight, the district issued a statement Wednesday confirming that the SEC is already investigating similar claims made last year.
"Because of the SEC's inquiry," the statement said, "the district will not discuss these claims in detail."
The district said its most recent audit found no shortcomings or inefficiencies in the bond program, but that it would take action in response to any findings or recommendations that may come out of the forthcoming forensic audit. The district also said it has taken steps to rebuild public confidence in the bond program by appointing new leadership to manage it, authorizing an independent attorney to advise the Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee, and directing staff to develop a facilities master plan, expected to be completed next year.
Clay said things have changed since former trustee Charles Ramsey, the bond program's biggest booster who previously chaired a facilities subcommittee that made most construction-related decisions, left office last December, but there is still much more to be done.
He questions the district's practice of hiring architects to begin conceptual plans for schools that will not be built for years or even decades, saying an official in the SGI construction management firm, which oversees the district's bond program, once referred to it as "the architect full employment program."
"I was astounded that he would say that, even though it's obviously true," Clay said. "I would have restated it as 'the SGI and architect full employment program.'"
Although Clay said he cares about district students having well-built facilities and taxpayers getting their money's worth, one of his main motivations for going public was to bring integrity to the district so he and his fellow employees can take pride in what they do.
"I'd like to work for a well-run, upright, honest organization," he said, becoming slightly teary-eyed. "We're going to run out of money before these schools are done, and people are going to feel like they've been lied to. It's not going to be a happy place or time."
Theresa Harrington covers education. Contact her at 925-945-4764. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa.