State watchdog agency to investigate Twin Rivers board president

Twin Rivers Unified school board President Linda Fowler
Twin Rivers Unified school board President Linda Fowler Linda Fowler

The state Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating whether Twin Rivers Unified school board President Linda Fowler violated conflict-of-interest rules by accepting thousands of dollars in consulting fees from a charter school she helped establish.

Highlands Community Charter School paid Fowler’s consulting firm $13,000 in October before canceling the contract when the school principal questioned its propriety.

The FPPC, a state watchdog agency, is acting on a June complaint it received from Jacob Walker, academic coordinator at Highlands Community Charter, according to an FPPC letter sent last week. He claimed Fowler used her position on the Twin Rivers board to pressure the school into hiring her.

Fowler’s firm was paid to pursue a federal startup grant for the adult education school, and she said she split the $13,000 with another consultant. Walker said he filed his complaint because of that contract – and a tentative new arrangement by which she can earn $600 a week.

Fowler says school board members can legally work for charter schools in their district, and that she should get paid for her efforts on behalf of the school.

The Twin Rivers Unified School District board established the Highlands school in March 2014 to give students older than 22 an opportunity to earn high school diplomas, learn vocations and improve English skills. About 40 percent of the 300 students attending Highlands Community Charter have spent time in prison.

Fowler previously told The Bee that the charter school’s founding members met before the school board approved the new program and discussed which jobs they would hold once it opened. She made the motion to approve the Highlands charter at a Twin Rivers Unified board meeting on March 4, 2014. The board, including Fowler, voted 7-0 in favor.

Fowler became a member of the Highlands Community Charter School board after the Twin Rivers board selected her as the liaison between the district board and the school.

She did not vote on her consulting contract with Highlands and stepped down as a member of its board on Sept. 18, the day after the charter’s trustees approved her contract in closed session and a week before they passed it in an open meeting. She told the board she would continue to vote on Highlands board items as the liaison from Twin Rivers Unified, according to the minutes.

It’s unclear how long the FPPC will take to investigate the complaint. Such reviews typically take a few weeks or months, said Jay Wierenga, spokesman for the watchdog agency. Ninety percent of the investigations last less then a year, depending on the complexity and how much cooperation the agency receives, he said.

Each violation of the the Political Reform Act can carry a $5,000 fine. Fines depend on a number of factors, Wierenga said, including whether the individual has had previous violations, how cooperative or uncooperative he or she is during an investigation, and how much actual or potential harm has been caused.

Walker said Monday that he could not comment because Highlands employees have been told to direct media inquiries to the school’s lawyer. But he has responded on his blog.

“The FPPC must agree with at least part of my analysis, as I have received a letter saying that they are proceeding with the investigation,” he wrote on his blog Monday. “I only have to say about this, that I am glad I live in a country that takes corruption seriously.”

Fowler said Monday that she had no comment. She has been a local school board member since 1971 when she was elected to the former North Sacramento Elementary District. She moved to the Twin Rivers Unified board in 2007 after North Sacramento and three other districts merged.

Fowler retired as an investigative auditor at the state Department of Justice.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

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