Drama and accusations grow over University of California audit

Inside Higher Ed

Doctoring an Audit

Two staffers have resigned, days ahead of a report expected to slam the University of California’s Office of the President for interfering in an audit of the institution.

By Nick Roll

November 16, 2017

University of California President Janet Napolitano

The University of California Office of the President interfered with an audit of the institution by tampering with the results of surveys sent out to various campuses, an independent investigation is expected to say today.

The special investigation into the allegations, which surfaced last spring after the state auditor declared the parts of the audit unusable and tainted because of unauthorized tampering by the Office of the President, is expected to contradict testimony UC President Janet Napolitano gave to lawmakers and acknowledge her role in approving the plan that led to the tampering — though it is not expected to find her at fault. Two of her aides — her chief of staff and deputy chief of staff — resigned earlier this month, more than a year after the original tampering effort first started.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on the details of the report’s conclusionWednesday, a day before its expected release, the latest in a months-long string of damning stories mostly circulating around public records showing staff from the Office of the President interfered with parts of the audit, which was started last year.

In October 2016, Elaine Howle, the state auditor, launched an inquiry into the University of California and its finances. As part of that inquiry, she asked the different campuses in the UC system to respond to confidential surveys about the Office of the President and its spending and initiatives.

In April, she released the audit, but the surveys were deemed tainted, with Howle saying that the Office of the President interfered with the answers. Emails obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle via a public records request found that three of the campuses — Irvine, San Diego and Santa Cruz — changed the results of their surveys to put the Office of the President in a better light, after being directed to do so by the Office of the President.

Napolitano’s chief of staff, Seth Grossman, and his deputy, Bernie Jones, led much of the effort to encourage changes in the campuses’ response to questions about how they viewed initiatives coming from the Office of the President, emails reveal, and Napolitano was briefed on the matter, to some extent, also according to email messages. Karen Petrulakis, deputy general counsel, also offered revisions for the survey results shared with the Office of the President, according to the reported findings of the special investigation. She also suggested that the Office of the President should share with the auditor that changes were being made to the confidential responses. She resigned in July, a month after the University of California Board of Regents hired Carlos Moreno, a former state supreme court justice, to investigate the tampering effort. He is the author of the report coming out today.

Grossman has pushed back against how much he was involved in the effort. The Office of the President has said that Jones and Grossman resigned “to pursue other opportunities.” Another UC official is also said to have reviewed the plan to tamper with the survey results. Charles Robinson, general counsel, is apparently identified in the report as expressing the legal and political risks of the Office of the President interfering in the matter.

Despite the process playing out publicly in the California press for months, UC Santa Cruz declined to comment to Inside Higher Ed on the audit and related fallout until the report was released. Officials at UC Irvine declined to comment on the report and did not respond to follow-up inquiries on the public fallout that had been occurring since the spring. Officials at UC San Diego did not respond to a request for comment.

In testimony to lawmakers following the audit’s release in the spring, Napolitano apologized for the way the Office of the President handled the surveys, but also tried to downplay the changes made and said that they were only made when campuses came to the Office of the President with questions.

“It’s important to take a step back and look at what changes were actually made. At seven of the 10 campuses, there were no changes made in the ratings,” Napolitano told them. “It clearly was not a process that was designed to make UCOP look good. It was designed to coordinate and collect the transmission of the surveys.”

Dianne Klein, spokeswoman for the Office of the President, said via email Wednesday that Napolitano approved the plan to coordinate the survey results to ensure they were accurate, within the scope of the audit, and that the chancellors were aware of what their campuses were submitting. She maintained that Napolitano did not know about interference from the Office of the President. Klein declined to comment on media reports of the special investigation’s finding.

Emails obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle did not support Napolitano’s claim that campuses came to the Office of the President for help, but rather painted a picture of Grossman and Jones leading outreach. In one instance, UC Santa Cruz retracted its submissions from the auditor’s office after sending them in. When the survey was resubmitted, some responses about the Office of the President were changed from negative to positive. The Moreno report is said to contradict Napolitano’s testimony that campuses were confused by the survey questions and reached out to her staff, and instead conclude that Napolitano was aware of her staff reaching out and coordinating the responses. Still, the Moreno report is said to concur with the Office of the President’s position that Napolitano was not aware of any interference.

The report apparently says Napolitano “forthrightly acknowledged her role in approving a plan” that resulted in the interference, but it does not place blame on her for the wrongdoing that occurred, according to theSan Francisco Chronicle. Although Howle, the auditor, declared the surveys tainted, the audit did find $175,000 at the Office of the President that government officials say was not properly accounted for.

Despite some lawmakers having called for her resignation in the past, State Assemblyman Jose Medina — who has criticized Napolitano’s handling of the audit in recent months and chairs the Assembly’s higher education committee — said in an email that he supports her continued leadership.

“I appreciate the Office of the President’s admittance to wrongdoing, and I accept President Napolitano’s apology for the interference,” he said, adding that it was important to move forward from the situation. “I will continue to work to improve the relationship between UC and the Legislature. Transparency and accountability within the UCOP are paramount, and I have confidence in President Napolitano’s leadership.”