San Mateo County Community College District official first to be charged in ongoing corruption probe

As the San Mateo County District Attorney’s office probes alleged corruption at the San Mateo County Community College District, its Vice-Chancellor Jose Nuñez has pleaded not guilty to 15 felony charges accusing him of embezzling taxpayer money and using property to campaign for a political ally.

Nunez — a 21-year veteran of the district who oversaw its facilities — was charged amid a two-year criminal investigation into the district, a scandal that led to the firing its chancellor Ron Galatolo in February 2021. No charges have been filed yet against Galatolo.

San Mateo County Community College District Vice-Chancellor Jose Nuñez.Courtesy, San Mateo County Community College District 

The district oversees Skyline College, Cañada College and the College of San Mateo.

Along with 12 perjury charges against Nunez for failing to report gifts made to him by donors, the DA’s office charges against him are:

  • Embezzlement of government funds amid allegations that in 2013 and 2014 Nunez helped award a solar energy project contract to the architectural firm of Allana, Buick and Bers of Palo Alto.
  • Illegally using college district computers and work hours to support the March 2020 statewide Prop 13 bond measure that would have awarded $2 billion to community college capital projects across California.
  • Illegally using college district computers and work hours to support the 2018 political campaign of Tom Mohr, who died in 2020.

Nunez was arraigned at the San Mateo County Hall of Justice on Dec. 22 and is scheduled for a pretrial conference Wednesday. Nunez has been placed on administrative leave, according to a statement from the district.

District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said in an interview his office has focused the investigation on allegations of impropriety made against former chancellor Galatolo, as well as other officials currently employed at the district. He said charges may be looming for Galatolo and others in the coming months, but the first person to get charges in the scandal is Nuñez. Galatolo could not be reached for comment.

Wagstaffe said he was in discussion with Nuñez’ attorneys for several months. Nuñez could not be reached for comment.

“We’ve been trying to see if there’s a middle ground or a defense, we’re always keeping an open ear to listen to the other side,” Wagstaffe said. “But I have heard no compelling argument. At least at this point, this is a political corruption case, misuse of taxpayer resources, and it’s always something that we take seriously.”

San Mateo County College District Director of Public Affairs Ana Maria Pulido said in a statement they would not respond specifically to the allegations made against Nuñez.

“Although the facts of the case are still limited, the College District has placed Mr. Nuñez on administrative leave to allow the legal process to take its course,” Pulido said. “The College District has an unwavering commitment to integrity, transparency, and accountability and supports the District Attorney’s goal of ensuring that these standards are met by all public officials.”

Prosecutors have spent the past two years investigating political corruption at the community college district after a whistleblower contacted the DA’s office with allegations of illegal activity by top officials. Their probe has centered on the former chancellor who was fired in February 2021.

Galatolo — who was previously the district’s chancellor for 20 years and the top paid employee with an annual salary of $467,000 — was accused of receiving “high-end travel,” concert tickets and meals from college district contractors and not disclosing it to the state as required, according to the district’s termination letter. The board also stated he failed to disclose “apparent use of public funds for retirement incentives” as well as “undisclosed personal relationships with vendors.”

In August 2019, Galatolo entered into a three-year, $1.6 million agreement with the district board to become Chancellor Emeritus, a position which was ostensibly set up to explore the possibility of landing a California State University campus on the Peninsula. Just a week after starting, the district placed Galatolo on paid leave upon learning he was being investigated by the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office.

College district board president Richard Holober said in an interview the district is cooperating in every possible way with the DA’s investigation. He said he wants the investigation “to come to whatever conclusion necessary sooner rather than later.”

In the last year, Holober said the district has adopted a policy to hire outside auditors to analyze the district’s practices and procedures. The district also has hired an internal auditor that will operate with “a great deal of autonomy” in reviewing any whistleblower complaints in the future.

Holober ran against Tom Mohr in 2018 in a pitched battle between labor interests and the district’s established administration. Nuñez allegedly campaigned for Mohr using college property. Holober beat Mohr by four percentage points.

“For folks who have observed the district and the board over the period of several years, it is no secret that I was very critical of some of the operations even though most of it was fought out in closed sessions and not made public,” Holober said. “We have a new board, new board majority and with that new board majority we’re doing our job which is what I’ve always wanted us to do.”

Source link