OAKLAND — Leaders of the Peralta Community College District have spent thousands of tax dollars on lavish hotels, East Coast trips and even clothing in the past 18 months.
Chancellor Elihu Harris and Peralta trustees routinely broke their own travel rules in the past year and half, the Bay Area News Group found in a review of district records.
Despite policies that require travel to be preapproved and at the "lowest possible cost," documents show that Harris and the trustees regularly chose more expensive hotel options and asked for permission to travel weeks after the trips.
On two occasions, Harris' habit of traveling with his wife cost the taxpayers extra. In March 2008, Harris attended a conference for college leaders in Yosemite National Park.
Documents show that Harris initially chose the cheaper option: to stay at the Yosemite Lodge, which costs $140 to $170 per night. But the chancellor canceled his first reservation, upgraded to the posh $340-per-night Ahwahnee Hotel and took his wife with him. The total cost: about $793.
Trustees were not told about the lodging switch, said board President Bill Withrow.
"That's surprising," he said. "I didn't know that."
Less than two months later, Harris and other Peralta leaders attended a Morgan Stanley investing conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. The chancellor's wife traveled with the group on a plane ticket bought with a Peralta credit card.
The $240 airfare was repaid 13 months later, when the Bay Area News Group questioned the expense. The late reimbursement was an oversight, a Peralta spokesman said. Several district managers, including the chancellor and trustees, use taxpayer-funded credit cards. Trustee Marcie Hodge piled up more than $4,460 in personal expenses since January 2008.
After the district's chief financial officer repeatedly raised concerns with Withrow, who spoke to Hodge several times, Hodge repaid the money. But she has continued to use the credit card for personal items, including nearly $700 in purchases last month.
In nearly every case, Hodge's reimbursement check to the district included a note that she had "mistakenly" charged personal expenses to the Peralta credit card.
An attorney for the district — which includes Laney and Merritt colleges in Oakland, Berkeley City College and the College of Alameda — censored those purchases on credit-card statements obtained by the Bay Area News Group through a request for public records, but district sources said the purchases included expensive clothing and other personal items. The district also censored tax-funded expenses on other Peralta credit cards.
Hodge did not respond to e-mail and phone messages over the course of several weeks. In a pamphlet she mailed to residents in 2006, during her failed campaign for a seat on the Oakland City Council, Hodge asked voters to help her "clean house" and referred to her efforts to reduce lavish expenses in the Peralta district.
"Waste and frivolous spending in the Peralta Community College District has gone on for too long," she declared in the mailer.
A taxpayer watchdog criticized the spending habits of Harris and the trustees.
"When it's someone else's money, (public officials) tend to become detached from the impact of what they're doing," said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "Pretty soon you're talking about real money."
Contrary to the district's policy, leaders do not always choose the lowest-cost travel options.
In March 2008, Withrow, the board president, paid about $1,470 for three nights at New York's four-star Le Parker Meridien hotel. "Luxury all the way," notes the hotel's review at LonelyPlanet.com. Peralta's chief financial officer, Tom Smith, and Laney College President Frank Chong also stayed there.
Withrow said recently he was upset at the price of the last-minute trip — "That left scars on me," he said. The trio decided to travel to New York just days before the trip, leaving little time to shop for hotel deals, they said.
The group was unable to find cheaper rooms, Smith said. They were seeking better investment options, which were then managed by the now defunct Lehman Brothers brokerage firm, he said.
District policy also states that Peralta officials should commute to events in the Bay Area rather than stay at hotels. But records show that, for the past two years, Trustee Nicky Gonzalez Yuen — a Berkeley resident — has stayed at a San Francisco hotel during a conference run by the Peralta district.
Gonzalez Yuen declined to be interviewed in person for this story, but said in an e-mail, "I am unaware of any policy (that) prohibits this expense."
When trustees violate district policies, they cannot be expected to criticize Harris for doing the same thing, said Vosburgh of the Howard Jarvis group. "They all stick together," he said.
The chancellor travels frequently and in style — at taxpayer expense — and records show he often does not follow district policy by choosing the "lowest possible cost" for lodging.
He flew to Washington, D.C., twice in January: first for Rep. Barbara Lee's swearing-in ceremony and then for Barack Obama's inauguration.
On the inauguration trip, Harris' wife accompanied him. Harris spent $3,740 on the five-day, trip, stayed in a $400-per-night hotel on Washington's Embassy Row and racked up $1,000 in unspecified "other" expenses.
Withrow, who paid for a $129 hotel room in the D.C. suburbs out of his own pocket, noted that rooms in Washington were averaging $700 per night during the inauguration. But the trustee, who signed off on Harris' request for public money after the trip, said he did not realize what he was approving.
"I obviously signed something that I thought was something different," Withrow said. "That's not too cool."
But Withrow also defended Harris' back-to-back Washington trips, saying the chancellor is the district's best lobbyist for federal funds.
"He's an asset to us back there," the trustee said. "We get in excess of $20 million per year in grants. You have to work the process to do that."
Trustee Abel Guillen said he was not aware of the chancellor's inauguration expenses or his switch to more expensive Yosemite lodgings for the leadership conference.
"It's probably something we should look into," he said. "As a board, we have a fiduciary responsibility to look out for the taxpayers."
In addition to Hodge, trustees William Riley and Linda Handy did not return phone and e-mail messages requesting interviews.