UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi has spoken with pride about her family’s involvement with the university. Now UC President Janet Napolitano considers them a potential liability.
Napolitano’s first concern when placing Katehi on leave Wednesday was the potential for nepotism involving her son and daughter-in-law and that their employment matters may have violated UC policy.
In particular, Napolitano questioned why Katehi’s daughter-in-law, Emily Prieto, had received promotions over 2 1/2 years that resulted in pay raises beyond $50,000. She also asked whether UCD inappropriately moved Katehi’s son and his research division under the purview of Prieto.
In a letter to Katehi, Napolitano wrote that “questions have been raised about the employment of some members of your family, including whether employment actions related to your daughter-in-law and son violate University conflict-of-interest policies and requirements related to the employment of near relatives.” An independent investigator is expected to scrutinize their promotions, raises and job changes.
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Katehi has repeatedly denied she has given favors to the three family members who work with her at the university.
In a meeting last week with Sacramento Bee reporters and editors, Katehi said her son, Erik Tseregounis, and Prieto met on campus and that Prieto was hired before the two of them ever knew one another.
She also said her husband, Spyros Tseregounis, was recruited with her when she became UC Davis chancellor in 2009. He earns $164,000 annually as an engineering lecturer, though his employment was not cited by Napolitano as a concern.
Erik Tseregounis, 32, graduated from the University of Michigan in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology. Katehi said he was accepted into the epidemiology graduate program at UC Davis in 2012 without her involvement.
Tseregounis was a graduate student research assistant in 2014 when he met Prieto, the chief of staff for Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Adela de la Torre. The couple married in September 2015, Katehi said.
Prieto, 36, arrived at UC Davis in 2013 as an executive analyst with a $77,000 salary, according to UC Office of the President. In 2014, she was promoted to chief of staff to de la Torre and was paid $90,419, according to a UC pay database.
In 2015, she added assistant vice chancellor to her title. Prieto now earns $130,000.
“She was and is the chief of staff for the vice chancellor of student affairs,” Katehi told The Bee. “When they met, she was the chief of staff. And I know that sounds very difficult, but I have to tell you I could not ask her to give up her job to marry my son, and I couldn’t ask him to go and meet somebody else.”
Prieto graduated with a doctorate from UC Davis in 2007 and was the director of the Latino Resource Center at Northern Illinois University for six years before returning to UC Davis.
Erik Tseregounis is a student research assistant in the UC Davis Center for Transnational Health, described as “an interdisciplinary partnership of investigators and other stakeholders who seek solutions to education and health disparities through research-to-practice.” He has a salary of $23,500.
The Center for Transnational Health was recently moved under the supervision of the division of UC Davis Student Affairs, based on Napolitano’s letter. The chancellor raised at least two concerns with that move. The first was that Tseregounis was now under the supervision of his wife.
“It does not appear the appropriate steps were taken to address, document or obtain approval for the fact your son now reported to your daughter-in-law, who, in turn was supervised by one of your direct reports,” Napolitano said in the letter.
The second concern raised by Napolitano was that the center’s shift may have resulted in student service fees being used improperly. This school year, the fee is $1,020 per student at UC Davis.
Under the UC Regents policy Napolitano cited, the fee is supposed to pay for “support services and programs that directly benefit students” but are not part of the “core instructional program.” The UC Davis website says it funds “non-academic services and activities” such as tutoring, mental health programs and paying down debt on the Memorial Union.
UC Office of the President spokeswoman Dianne Klein said she could not explain Napolitano’s concern about how student fees were used because it was under investigation.
Beyond that, Napolitano expressed concern about a pay increase beyond 20 percent to de la Torre over the past 2 1/2 years.
De la Torre, an agricultural economist, started at the university in 2011 as a professor earning $167,000. She was promoted to interim vice chancellor in August 2012 and was bumped up to $236,000 a year. She was given the title of vice chancellor in August 2013 and got a $7,000 annual bump.
In July 2014, her salary increased to $252,800, then to $310,000 in July 2015. That increase was high enough to require approval by the Board of Regents, according to a document obtained by The Bee. UC Davis justified the increase by saying de la Torre’s duties were expanding to include campuswide diversity efforts instead of hiring a new employee.
De la Torre and Prieto did not return calls Thursday for comment. A receptionist said the two administrators had prior engagements and were unavailable to comment.
A UC Davis spokeswoman referred calls for Katehi to her attorney, Melinda Guzman, who did not comment Thursday. Guzman said Wednesday that placing Katehi on leave “was entirely unjustified” and “smacks of scapegoating.”
Katehi will be on paid leave for 90 days during an independent investigation. She earns $424,360 annually as UC Davis chancellor.
Among UC Davis lecturers, Spyros Tseregounis, 62, had the highest base pay and the fourth highest gross pay in 2014, according to a UC pay database.
Katehi said last week that her husband, who teaches chemical engineering, was recruited with her as part of the university’s Partner Opportunities Program. The program is designed to help the university recruit and retain top managers.
“This is done in universities widely because a lot of our faculty, as you know, are married with other faculty,” she said. “They meet themselves in graduate school.”
Spyros Tseregounis earned his doctorate from UCLA and worked as a senior engineer for General Motors and then Rolls-Royce before taking a job as an assistant dean at the University of Illinois, according to Katehi.
“There is a firewall between me and my husband and all of the decisions are done by the (academic) senate, and I am totally out of the space,” she told The Bee.