FPPC: Four Sacramento area school officials took hidden gifts

Four Sacramento-area school officials received free meals from bond advisers and failed to disclose them, according to a statewide investigation into unreported gifts by California’s political watchdog agency.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission is recommending penalties for 86 public officials statewide who are accused of accepting but failing to report gifts within the last four years. Violators collectively would pay $22,000 under a proposed settlement headed for the commission’s Nov. 14 agenda.

The four Sacramento-area officials facing penalties are Sacramento City Unified School District trustee Diana Rodriguez ($400); former Sacramento City Unified School District trustee Roy Grimes, ($200); Brian Rivas, vice president of the Sacramento County Board of Education ($200); and former Roseville City School District board member Rene Aguilera ($200).

Public school leaders vote on bond deals worth tens of millions of dollars, and the advisers they hire stand to receive hefty commissions.

The state Political Reform Act requires public officials to report meals or other gifts received in excess of a $50 disclosure limit.

Grimes said he would pay the penalty and is cooperating with the FPPC. The staff report said he failed to report four meals totaling $162. “The FPPC said I made the error,” he said. “I accepted the error.”

Sacramento City Unified trustee Diana Rodriguez’s fine was for two meals totaling $222 in 2010 and three totaling $181 in 2011.

Rodriguez, Rivas and Aguilera said some of the meals likely occurred at events tied to annual California School Boards Association conferences. Various organizations interested in doing business with school districts host dinners and receptions at CSBA conferences and other events that draw school board members. Aguilera said the dinners give board members an opportunity to bond with one another and share best practices.

All three said they have corrected their disclosure statements and paid their fines. “In the end, it was a real learning experience,” Rodriguez said.

Rivas called his failure to report five meals totaling $238 in 2011 an inadvertent error. It’s “a lesson for me to pay more attention to detail,” he said, adding that it’s easy to pass the $50 gift threshold when accepting meals. “I made a mistake and I should have disclosed this,” he said.

Aguilera said the four meals worth $339 he accepted from De La Rosa & Co. in 2010 were likely held in connection with CSBA conferences or California Latino School Boards Association events. Aguilera, who was trustee for the Roseville City School District for 10 years, is now on the board of the Roseville Joint Union High School District.

He said he’s already planning to attend an upcoming dinner being hosted by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in San Diego at the next CSBA meeting in December. “I’ve heard of people getting invited on yachts or big ships in the San Diego Bay,” Aguilera said.

More than half the 86 individuals represent school districts. But the FPPC also cited representatives from cities, college districts, water districts and a redevelopment agency. The gifts mostly involved meals, but some officials received baseball tickets and rounds of golf.

The FPPC is still investigating another 18 people for unreported gifts, including Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, the agency said. It did not provide any further details on those ongoing inquiries.

A spokeswoman for Hueso said her office has not received any information from the FPPC about the matter. “As soon as we find out more, we will have a response,” said Hueso spokeswoman Lourdes Jimenez.

The investigation began after the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office uncovered evidence of unreported gifts from bond advisers. The FPPC enforcement division then decided to start its own investigation to determine if other California public officials had failed to report gifts. They asked three bond advisers to share their records and found that only 16 of 221 public officials who had received gifts had properly reported them.

One of the bond advisers, E.J. De La Rosa & Co., has underwritten about 375 bonds for California local governments since 2009 worth a total of about $14.5 billion, according to the State Treasurer’s Office.

In 2011 and 2012, the company underwrote revenue anticipation bonds worth $125 million for Sacramento City Unified, state records show. The firm’s compensation was about $150,000, according to official bond statements issued to investors.

The FPPC reported there was no indication of any wrongdoing on the part of the bond advisers and that they cooperated fully. The FPPC drew no correlation between specific bonds issued and the recipients of the gifts.

The State Treasurer’s Office did not list any bonds underwritten by De La Rosa since 2009 for the Roseville City School District or the Sacramento County Office of Education.