College of the Canyons may have broken the law when it signed a lease to use space in Valencia Town Center in support of Measure E, a critic of bond measures believes.
Richard Michael, who runs the website Big Bad Bonds, said that because the school and not the pro-measure committee handled the lease, it violates the state Education Code.
“The agreement is made with the College of the Canyons, so the College of the Canyons is using its nonprofit status and its resources to get an advantage for a committee that’s going to benefit them politically,” said Michael.
COC spokesman Eric Harnish wrote in an email that without seeing the documents, the school couldn’t comment.
At issue is an event agreement between the school and Westfield, which owns the Valencia Town Center, to lease space in the mall between March 25-June 25, 2016 as a campaign headquarters.
The event description lists a college phone number, the college’s Rockwell Canyon Road address and Claudia Dunn, then the special assistant to Chancellor Dianne Van Hook, as the contact. The lease was for no money.
Contrast that with a state form that lists the Committee For College of the Canyons – Yes on Measure E as having a Woodland Hills address and contact name of Robert McCarty, who was one of the seven committee co-chairs.
Board member Joan MacGregor said she recalled being told about the lease at a meeting, but it was not voted on. “I believe it was donated,” she said, “a donation of an empty space.” Board president Michael Berger didn’t return calls for comment.
In fact, a confidential document received via public-records request and given to the Gazette said that when COC entered into the lease, “the prior tenant had abruptly breached the lease by vacating the space three years before the expiration of the term and Westfield was left without a tenant.”
Richard said the school violated section 7054 of the state’s Education Code, which prohibits community college districts from using funds, services, supplies, or equipment for urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure; and Government Code Sec. 8314, which prohibits an employee from using public resources for a campaign activity. “Public resources” is defined as “any property or asset owned by the state or any local agency, including, but not limited to, land, buildings, facilities, funds, equipment, supplies, telephones, computers, vehicles, travel, and state-compensated time.”
“Here, we have a setup,” Michael said. “They’re using the assistant who’s getting paid a whole boatload of money for her time and energy to put the deal together.”
It’s not known whether the event agreement was signed before, during or after regular business hours. Zach Eichman, Westfield’s senior vice president of communications and public affairs, didn’t return a phone call.
Nor is it known whether the phones, tables and other furniture used in the mall came from COC, the Yes on E committee or outside sources.
Board member Edel Alonso, who wasn’t yet elected to the board when the measure passed, said the possibility that the college broke the law concerns her.
“I would have liked to see what the cost would be, who was making the arrangements, who was responsible for the arrangements (and) was the college staff involved in any way, because that would not be legal,” she said.
Michael believes COC engaged in a common practice he calls “advocacy paid for by the public.” It’s when an entity puts out what is purported to be information about an issue but is really a pitch to approve or defeat it. His latest example is Measure EE, a proposed parcel tax on the June ballot that would benefit the Los Angeles Unified School District to the tune of $500,000,000 a year for 12 years.
There’s a Yes on EE committee website but also an LAUSD-sponsored site that lists the advantages of the measure without any opposing views.
Another point Michael finds suspicious: A state form to the Secretary of State Political Reform Office, the Citizens for College of the Canyons-Yes on Measure E Committee became active April 4, 2016, 10 days after the event agreement began. Additionally, the state form that lists McCarty as the committee contact shows the state qualified it as a committee on March 22, three days before the lease took effect.
Payroll records from the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which handles COC’s payroll, show that Dunn, who now works for UCLA Health under her married name of Claudia Dunn-Martinez and did not return phone calls, made exactly the same pay before and after the lease dates.
A 20-minute video on the KHTS website from April 27, 2016, shows Van Hook, who interviewer Carl Goldman identified as “our chancellor of College of the Canyons,” talking about all the good things she expected to come from the measure if it passed. She never corrected Goldman by insisting she was a private citizen or an individual with no ties to the college.
Less than a month and a half later, the $230 million bond measure passed, 58 percent to 42 percent.
The district attorney has until next year to determine if Dunn or Van Hook broke the law. Even then, it’s possible the DA wouldn’t want to spend time and resources prosecuting because violating Sec. 7054 is either a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum one year in county jail, a $1,000 fine or both; or a felony punishable by between 16 months and three years in county jail.
A similar case involved the Fair Political Practices Commission ruling that the Bay Area Rapid Transit District was guilty of three counts of spending public funds in support of Measure RR, a $3.5 billion bond measure that passed with 70.53 percent of the vote in 2016.
The total fine assessed was $7,500.