Friday, July 13, 2007 | On Oct. 1, 2005, Rear Admiral José Betancourt retired after a distinguished 33-year career with the Navy, ending his stint as San Diego’s “Navy mayor.” But within months, he was back at work: By spring of 2006, Betancourt had not only found a new job, he had three of them.
Betancourt was hired as chief administrative officer of the San Diego Unified School District in late November 2005, becoming one of the senior-most lieutenants to Superintendent Carl Cohn, who had taken over the state’s second-largest school district the previous month. Several weeks later, Betancourt also joined a small technology firm to lead its pursuit of a $300 million Navy contract. The following spring, one of the firm’s affiliates had brought him on board as an executive director.
The Accela Group, the technology firm, never won the contract. Instead, Betancourt pleaded guilty this week to a misdemeanor violation of a federal conflict-of-interest law for his work on the bid, with a federal judge ordering him to pay a $15,000 fine and serve a year of probation. In what initially looked like an isolated criminal matter, the ensuing controversy has grown to include Betancourt’s work at the school district.
District records show that the chief administrative officer never disclosed his work with the two companies on annual statements of economic interest, documents outlining income, property and business holdings that must be filed by public officials under state law. Three school board members who offered comments Thursday also said they were not told of Betancourt’s affiliation with the companies until his name surfaced in a federal investigation more than a year after he was hired, and one has called for his resignation.
The trustees said they should have known about Betancourt’s business dealings before the legal investigation arose. The district said it is researching whether his actions complied with the state’s Political Reform Act of 1974, the law requiring the annual economic interest disclosures.
Through a spokeswoman, Betancourt declined to discuss why he never reported the work he had done for the two firms on his annual filings.
The three board members contacted Thursday said they had not known about the executive’s work for the companies before the start of the controversy. Trustee John de Beck called on Betancourt to step down to protect the reputation of the school system.
“Nobody wants to quit their job, but also, no one wants to send the message that this is something we tolerate,” said school board member John de Beck. “If this was something on his resume, we would never hire him, so why should we keep him?”
A fourth board member, Shelia Jackson, would not discuss the situation, calling it a personnel matter. Board President Luis Acle was not available for comment.
On Wednesday, spokeswoman Ursula Kroemer said Betancourt’s guilty plea should not affect his role at the district because it dealt with events in his personal life before he joined the school system. Thursday, when shown evidence that the criminal matter covered Betancourt’s actions during the time he was employed by San Diego Unified, Kroemer said Cohn stood by his top administrator.
Oct. 1, 2005: José Betancourt retires after a decorated, 33-year career with the Navy.
Nov. 22, 2005: Betancourt signs a consulting contract with Access Systems Inc., a government contractor.
Nov. 28, 2005: In a staff bulletin, the San Diego Unified School District announces that Betancourt has been hired as the school system’s chief administrative officer.
December 2005: The Accela Group, a joint venture that included Access Systems, names Betancourt as chairman of its Management Board.
Dec. 13, 2005: Betancourt formally signs his contract with the school district.
Jan. 18, 2006: Betancourt files his annual statement of economic interest for 2005, disclosing, among other holdings, between $2,000 and $10,000 from his consulting service.
Feb. 15, 2006: Betancourt submits the Accela Group’s $300 million bid to the Navy, in violation of a federal lobbying law.
April 10, 2006: Access Systems announces that it hired Betancourt as its executive director for Navy programs.
Nov. 8, 2006: Betancourt terminates his relationship with the Accela Group.
Nov. 9, 2006: Betancourt terminates his relationship with Access Systems.
Feb. 27, 2007: The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that Betancourt had been named in a federal conflict-of-interest inquiry.
April 30, 2007: Betancourt files his annual statement of economic interest for 2006, disclosing only his district salary.
July 11, 2007: Betancourt pleads guilty to a misdemeanor charge of violating a federal revolving-door law.
“The superintendent will not be asking Mr. Betancourt to step down,” she said in an e-mail.
In court records filed this week, Betancourt admitted that he was hired by the Accela Group in 2005 to influence the Navy in awarding its $300 million contract for work on the Naval Warfare Systems Center in New Orleans. The winner of the bid was to be selected by Navy officials in San Diego.
In December of 2005, less than a month after Betancourt joined the school district, the company named him chairman of its Management Board with the responsibility of preparing the company’s bid, which was submitted in February of 2006. In court records, Betancourt admitted that his work on the bid ran afoul of a federal law that prohibits high-level government officials from lobbying their former employers for a year after leaving office, a practice known as a “revolving door.”
Betancourt’s relationship with the company began even before he was hired by the school system. A week before starting at San Diego Unified, Betancourt signed a consulting contract with Access Systems Inc., one of the firms that made up the Accela Group. On April 10, 2006, two months after the Navy bid was submitted and while Betancourt was helping manage the school district, Access Systems announced in a press release that it had hired him as its executive director for Navy programs.
The press release stated that Betancourt’s job would be to “provide leadership to ACCESS management and staff working on Navy contracts” and to “oversee ACCESS’ Navy customer relationship management initiative.” A spokeswoman for the company did not respond to calls for comment.
The three school board members who would discuss the matter said they were not told of Betancourt’s original consulting gig when he was hired. On his annual statement of economic interest for 2006, Betancourt disclosed his $185,000 salary from the school district as his only income, making no mention of either Access Systems or the Accela Group.
Board member Mitz Lee said the trustees first learned of Betancourt’s other business dealings from the superintendent earlier this year, after The San Diego Union-Tribune, a local newspaper, reported that federal officials were investigating the former admiral in connection to a conflict-of-interest violation.
Lee said she was very concerned about this week’s development, though she stopped short of calling for the chief administrative officer to step down, saying the board should consider the matter at its next meeting.
“He’s leading the department that is in charge of the budget. He’s leading a lot of people, and he needs to have the command and respect of all of the people,” said Lee, the only board member to vote against hiring Betancourt in 2005. “My question is, will he be effective in leading this district and this department?”
She said she was troubled that Betancourt was not “forthright and forthcoming about where he was employed.”
Betancourt’s contract with the district allows him to undertake consulting work, speaking engagements and “other professional obligations,” as long as they don’t interfere with his work as chief administrative officer. Board member Katherine Nakamura said it’s not unusual for staff to take on various jobs on the side, though she said most are not as involved as Betancourt’s apparent endeavors.
“They’re supposed to be disclosed, and we’re supposed to know about those,” she said of staff members’ major undertakings.
Kroemer, the district spokeswoman, would not say when Cohn learned of Betancourt’s work for the two firms or of the legal troubles. She said Betancourt left both companies in November of last year, when he realized he was violating federal law.
In a statement released by the district on Wednesday, Betancourt pointed out that the companies did not profit from his efforts, as Navy officials disqualified the Accela Group bid after noticing his conflict of interest.
“This experience has reinforced one of life’s important lessons: Laws, rules and regulations exist for a reason,” he said in the statement. “They must be adhered to by everyone. No one is above the law.”
He added: “My entire life has been devoted to public service and I’m deeply sorry I did not set a better example in this instance.”
Legal experts said it was unusual for federal prosecutors to pursue rotating-door charges in criminal court, as most are dealt with through a simple fine.
“It must’ve been very, very serious what he was doing,” said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “I’m trying to remember the last time I heard” of criminal charges in such a case.
The controversy has shaken the administration of Cohn less than a month after the school board rebuked the superintendent and his staff by temporarily rejecting the district’s budget over transparency concerns. As chief administrative officer, Betancourt is charged with overseeing the district’s finance and procurement departments. With a budget of $63.1 million, he also directs the work of the school system’s special education and facilities staff, among other departments.
How the superintendent responds to the matter could affect Cohn’s fate at the district, de Beck said.
If the superintendent does not ask for Betancourt to step down, de Beck said, “then perhaps it’s time for both of them to go.”
“Maybe the issue is really whether we do need someone that will support someone with an ethics problem,” he said.
In 2006, after an audit raised questions about how former Superintendent Alan Bersin used money in a special fund controlled by a local nonprofit, Cohn said he was troubled by the revelations. Under Cohn’s watch, the district set up a new ethics office and fraud hotline in part to prevent similar controversies.
Excusing Betancourt’s legal transgressions, de Beck said, would send the wrong message to other district employees.
Betancourt did not respond to messages left at his office and with his attorney. Cohn also did not respond to requests for comment. Both will likely be grilled about the matter in an upcoming board meeting, board members said, though behind closed doors.
Lee said her decision on how to respond to legal revelations will depend on how much Cohn knew about his deputy’s legal troubles and business activities.
“I think that’s the question now,” she said. “What did the superintendent know and when did he know it?”