A Palm Tree Scandal and Then a Resignation
Thursday June 21, 2007 | With a spring in her step and an air of perpetual hurriedness about her, Victoria Munoz Richart was all smiles Tuesday morning as she prepared for the 3 p.m. regular board meeting between administration and faculty at MiraCosta Community College. Since Richart came to MiraCosta in 2004 as president, tensions between faculty and administration have risen steadily, stemming largely from the felony investigation of faculty members in a palm tree scandal and the subsequent creation of a political action committee to get the president removed.
“When I think about the accomplishments this school has made since I came here it helps me to push the rest of this aside,” Richart said in an interview.
Fifteen hours later, after a tense overnight meeting in closed session that ended in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Richart resigned, collected a $650,000 severance package and a guarantee that she can continue to fight a war that has raged for three years.
With an enrollment of more than 10,000 and two campuses in Oceanside and Encinitas, MiraCosta Community College has grown steadily since it opened in 1934. The college follows a collegial governance structure that is comprised of an academic senate made up of teaching faculty, a classified senate that includes all non-teaching staff, and the seven-member board of trustees. The superintendent and president serves as the executive officer for the board of trustees.
The tumultuous last few years have left a bruise on the college’s relatively scandal-free past and have created what Academic Senate President Jonathan Cole calls a “climate of distrust” between faculty and the administration.
“Her departure was a long time coming,” said Susan Herrmann, a professor at MiraCosta and head of a recently created political action committee, Restore MiraCosta.
Much of the aggravation between Richart and the faculty can be traced to a common sight around the campus — palm trees.
In December 2005, a whistleblower complaint from a classified employee surfaced in the human resources department. By May 2006, an investigation by the private investigations firm ESI International Inc. into the fraudulent diversion of public funds at the college’s horticultural department was well under way, and two employees were put on leave indefinitely. The investigative report was released in April and detailed the illegal sale of palm trees on the school’s Oceanside campus.
According to the report, Alleen Texiera and an unnamed former boyfriend started a palm-growing and selling business on the Oceanside campus in 1996 using roughly 1,000 palm trees that had been donated to MiraCosta.
During this time, the horticulture department was found to have improperly diverted funds from the sale of plants into tin cans and soda boxes. The report also stated that the department had been running an “underground economy” to pay illegal workers for their landscaping work. In total, the misplaced funds totaled $305.38.
Shortly after the report was released, former horticultural department head Texiera pled guilty to a single count of grand theft, paid a $2,500 penalty, and retired. Later that month, former Vice President of Instructional Services Julie Hatoff, who had been on paid leave for six months, did not get her contract renewed because of her involvement in the scandal.
Silly String and Green Bracelets
“I’m going to need you to come to the meeting tonight,” Richart said to the head security guard on campus Tuesday morning. “And I’m going to need you to stay the whole time.”
Security at board meetings has become a common sight over the last few months after Richart received an anonymous death threat in May and board president Charles Adams, who is black, discovered the letters “KKK” written on his home in silly string June 1.
At the June 5 board meeting, Adams angrily accused Cole and classified senate President Abdy Afzali of writing the letters. There have been no arrests made in the incident, which the Oceanside Police Department later characterized as a hate crime.
Standing up at the podium meant for public speakers, Adams also singled out members of the faculty who had recently began wearing green bracelets that said “Restore MiraCosta,” a reference to the political action committee, claiming they were sending out “hate-filled propaganda” around the campus and the community.
Adams later sent out a letter apologizing to all faculty and staff for his actions, but for many, the damage had already been done.
“The June 5 board meeting was the lowest point I have experienced in the history of this institution,” Cole said.
Tensions over Adams’ comments were still high at the June 19 meeting, even hours before the academic faculty knew Richart was resigning.
“The accusations you made at the last meeting are inconceivable and are shameful and embarrassing to all the faculty and staff at this college,” said retired professor Katherine Herd to Adams and Richart. “As much as you try to destroy the collegiality, it will never be destroyed here at MiraCosta.”
It’s Not About the Palm Trees
While Richart prepared for the June 19 regular meeting, Restore MiraCosta continued to prepare for what its supporters thought would be a much longer battle. The political action committee formed in early April and is comprised of academic faculty, classified staff, retirees and members of the community.
On Dec. 1, 2006, members of the faculty held a “vote of no confidence” ballot, in which 106 out of 148 staff members said that they had no confidence in Richart or the board of trustees and called for her to step down.
Four days later, Richart and the board dismissed the vote, calling it unofficial.
“I will not resign,” Richart said at the Dec. 5 meeting.
On Wednesday, even Herrmann expressed surprise at Richart’s resignation.
“None of the board was acting differently at all yesterday,” Herrmann said. “But she has a history of telling lies and she did tell us she would never resign so I guess you have to take this with a grain of salt.”
Restore MiraCosta member Beatriz McWilliams said the group acknowledges that the fraudulent activity that took place in the horticulture department needed to be stopped and addressed, but its members do not think a full-scale felony investigation was needed.
“It’s not about the palm trees,” McWilliams said. “It’s about how the investigation went forward and the way this president fits within the system of collegial governance that we have within this college.”
In an interview a week before her resignation, Richart had a different take on the investigation. Richart said that because it was a whistleblower complaint, she was required by law to investigate.
“For over 10 years, there were things going on in that department and money being mishandled,” Richart said.
Richart also said the investigation discovered more than just the $300.
According to the report, Texiera was preparing to remove 2,000 trees from the MiraCosta property to give back to her then ex-boyfriend.
“Ms. Texiera was going to do much more than steal $305,” Richart said. “Through our investigation we saved $300,000 worth of palm trees.”
Agreeing to Disagree
Both Texiera and Hatoff are suing MiraCosta for sexual discrimination and retaliation. Richart said she is looking forward to her day in court.
“I am very happy that both of the employees have filed against the school,” Richart said. “Now we can take things out from the public press and into a court of law. I am looking forward to the truth coming out.”
Despite Richart’s departure, she will still most likely get her day in court. In the agreement reached early Wednesday morning between Richart and the governing board, she will be made available in all current and future litigation that relates to her employment with the college. Richart’s departure is expected to take place around June 30, and a replacement for her has not yet to be discussed.
When asked Tuesday morning if she was glad she took the position despite the ongoing controversy, Richart remained diplomatic, if not slightly prescient.
“I am happy of the friends I have made since I moved here and the work that I’ve done,” Richart said. “There has to be a point when we agree to disagree and move on.”
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