Peralta Community College District trustees will decide tonight whether to fire an employee it says gave the media public information that embarrassed Chancellor Elihu Harris.
District administrators have recommended the board fire Jennifer Lenahan, an executive assistant to Vice Chancellor Tom Smith. The action comes after Bay Area News Group published four articles July 12 noting several questionable decisions by Harris and other Peralta leaders, including a no-bid contract awarded to Mark Lindquist, Harris' longtime business partner.
Among the district's claims are that Lenahan — in response to a request under the California Public Records Act — provided this newspaper a document listing all payments from Peralta to Lindquist's company, 1701 Associates. Bay Area News Group received no such document from Lenahan or any other source, and public-records experts said Lenahan would have been within her rights as a public employee if she had provided the information.
Lenahan did compile a list of payments to Lindquist, but she was ordered not to give it to the newspaper, according to a document that notified Lenahan of the district's intent to fire her. She showed the record of payments to Peralta spokesman Jeff Heyman and asked whether the newspaper should receive it. "Can you believe that we paid him that much?" Lenahan, according to district documents, asked Heyman about the $940,000 no-bid contract awarded to Lindquist.
California law requires public agencies to help people find specific information, often by providing a list of relevant documents, records experts said.
In their notice to Lenahan, Peralta administrators called the Lindquist payments "sensitive and confidential" and said they should not have been disclosed. "Your decision to manufacture a document that would reflect negatively on the chancellor and the district is not acceptable," the district wrote.
Peralta investigators found no record of the document they say Lenahan produced. The only proof provided in the firing notice is a rough drawing of the document made by Heyman.
Public employees should not be punished for following the law, said Terry Francke, general counsel for the public watchdog group Californians Aware. The Lindquist payments are clearly public record, added Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
"You are talking about the expenditure of public funds," he said. "There's nothing confidential or sensitive about it."
Heyman did not return phone messages Monday. Harris did not respond to an interview request and has declined requests from Bay Area News Group for several months.
About the time the district says Lenahan produced the list of payments, the newspaper had requested all contracts and payments to Lindquist. District administrators told Lenahan the newspaper would not have asked for such detailed information without her help. The district released documents about the Lindquist deal, but it did not include the list it claims Lenahan compiled
Lenahan also was accused of several other malfeasances, including telling co-workers, "Everybody hired at this district has something to do with the chancellor." Two of the district's highest-paid administrators, general counsel Thuy Thi Nguyen and special assistant Alton Jelks, have long ties to Harris, a former Oakland mayor and state legislator.
Lenahan declined to comment through her attorney, David Weintraub, who said Harris demands loyalty from his employees.
"It speaks to a retaliatory environment when the reputation of Chancellor Harris has been questioned," said Weintraub, who added that the board should keep Lenahan and fire Harris.
The document advising Lenahan of the firing also contradicted statements made by Harris in a public meeting soon after Bay Area News Group series was published in July. At that meeting, Harris said he had not been contacted by the newspaper in the weeks leading up to the stories.
A Peralta-produced timeline in Lenahan's notice shows that Harris declined several interview requests, beginning more than a month before the series was published. Trustee Bill Withrow, the board president, has told Bay Area News Group that he knew Harris' statement was untrue.
All Peralta trustees either declined to comment on Lenahan's case or did not return phone messages. But Trustee Linda Handy expressed confidence that administrators were following the rules.
"I think the district is going to follow all protocol," she said, declining to answer additional questions. "If it doesn't, then we might have this discussion."
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 925-943-8246. Reach Thomas Peele at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: Peralta Community College District Board of Trustees hearing
When: 4:45 p.m.
Where: 333 E. Eighth St., Oakland