by Chris Reed | November 24, 2017 3:08 pm
University of California Regents have bought UC President Janet Napolitano’s story about how her office came to interfere with an audit of its performance ordered by the state Legislature, with regents saying they were disappointed by the scandal but prepared to move on after reprimanding Napolitano.
But there could be more fallout on two fronts: in the Legislature and in the governor’s race, where the frontrunner, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, is an ex-officio UC regent.
That’s because Napolitano’s story seems so implausible. According to an independent report prepared at regents’ behest by former California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno and the Hueston Henningan law firm, after state Auditor Elaine Howle sent surveys to UC campuses in October 2016 asking for their assessment of UC’s Office of the President, Seth Grossman, Napolitano’s chief of staff, and Bernie Jones, her deputy chief of staff, put out the word that they needed to review the responses. This was done even though Howle had emphasized the responses were supposed to be confidential. Subsequently, three campuses – UC Santa Cruz, UC Irvine and UC San Diego – revised their responses to make them more favorable to Napolitano’s office.
But Napolitano told the Legislature in May, and Moreno’s investigators more recently, that while she approved the plan to have her office review the responses, she did so because she wanted to ensure the responses were correct – not because she wanted to protect her image. She also said campuses had requested help.
Moreno’s report did not suggest the UC president was lying. But it found no evidence that campuses sought help with their responses. And it noted that UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal said that he was chewed out by Napolitano for his campus sending in a response to Howle without running it by her staff. UC Santa Cruz’s response was the harshest of any campus, giving Napolitano’s office one “poor” and three “fair” ratings out of the 10 categories in the survey questions. After Blumenthal’s telephone conversation with what he described as a “furious” Napolitano, UC Santa Cruz changed the “poor” and “fair” ratings to good and upgraded three “good” ratings to “exceptional.”
Napolitano said she remembers her conversation with Blumenthal as being routine, not angry. But Blumenthal’s account is consistent with other findings in the Moreno report, such as Napolitano’s declaration in a text message that Howle was on a “witch hunt.”
The two aides cited in the Moreno report resigned a week before the report’s release and declined substantive comment on the allegations against them.
The Legislature, which passed a bill last session subsequently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown making it a crime for a state agency to interfere with a state audit, could consider follow-up legislation. There’s considerable residual anger over Napolitano’s May testimony to a joint legislative hearing in which she repeatedly denied personal wrongdoing of any kind. Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-Dublin, vice chair of the Higher Education Committee, cited that testimony last week in calling for Napolitano to be fired.
In the gubernatorial race, UC-related sparks seem just as likely to fly. While Newsom told the Los Angeles Times that he considered regents’ decision to reprimand Napolitano “insignificant” – suggesting he wanted stronger punishment – he joined the unanimous vote to retain her as UC president.
This is tough to square with Newsom’s reported comments about how he would deal with corruption and ethical issues in state government: “I will not be known for being timid about this or anything else. Gov. Brown says reform is overrated; I say it’s underrated.”
As for Howle’s part, she wants regents to take additional actions beyond reprimanding Napolitano, according to a letter she sent to regents and an internal report by her office that were obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
Howle asked regents to “consider disciplining university employees who repeatedly interfered with a state audit, tried to hide their actions, misled investigators and withheld requested information until threatened with court action,” the Times reported.
At the regents’ Nov. 17 meeting in San Francisco, they began consideration of measures meant to “clarify and strengthen” how UC officials who report both to the regents and to Napolitano must deal with state audits.
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