Tuesday, October 6, 1998

Williams' secret deal revisited

From the 'Vine 10, October 6, 1998

WILLIAMS’ SECRET DEAL REVISITED; [By Chunk Wheeler; aka Roy Bauer]

            Last July, I wrote the piece that follows. I showed it to my legal advisers, who, upon reflection, suggested that, if I was going to run it, I needed to remove references to certain elements of certain declarations—elements that, if discussed openly, would tip the hand of our legal adversaries. Thus, in the August 17 District News, which was distributed district-wide, I ran a highly edited version of the piece.
            The legal worries no longer obtain, and so here is the unedited version:


     As you know, we won our first lawsuit against the board of trustees. On September 17, 1997, Judge McDonald of the OC Superior Court found that, with regard to the April 28, 1997, meeting in which Raghu P. Mathur was appointed interim president of Irvine Valley College, the board (and Chancellor) violated five sections of the Ralph M. Brown Act (a.k.a. the California Open Meeting Act), a law that limits secret or private governmental actions and that protects the public’s rights to monitor and comment on them in advance.
     Naturally, the board majority—those noisy champions of “accountability”—accept no blame for this. Instead, insofar as they acknowledge error here at all, they blame it on Spencer Covert, the district’s legal counsel, and Robert Lombardi, our last Chancellor.
     Surprisingly, even after the court’s judgment against them, Williams, Frogue, Fortune, and Lorch have blithely violated Brown provisions anew, complaining all the while about the “needless” court costs incurred by the district, owing to our lawsuit. It never occurs to these people simply to obey the damned law.
     Soon, the court will consider our second Brown Act suit. It concerns three board meetings in particular: the closed meeting of July 16, in which, without warning, and without agendizing the matter, the board majority reorganized the district; the closed meeting of August 18, in which the board was treated to an unagendized address by state official and Mathur crony Vishwas More; and, finally, the closed meeting of September 8, in which the board, after only 25 minutes of discussion, decided to appoint Raghu P. Mathur as “permanent” president of Irvine Valley College.
     I mention, in passing, that, apparently, in July, the board once again violated the Brown Act, for, again in closed session, they discussed a controversial personnel action despite having failed to agendize the matter. The pattern of private decision-making continues.
     My remarks today concern the September meeting only.

     Our efforts to uncover the facts concerning Mathur’s September board appointment have been hampered somewhat by key player Dave Lang’s decision, based on Spencer Covert’s advice, not to answer some of our questions during deposition. (We have pursued a challenge to the alleged privilege that Covert cited to justify Lang’s reticence, but the process is very expensive.) Despite this hurdle, we have managed to assemble information and testimony that, we believe, establishes that each of the board majority, and John Williams in particular, conducted him or herself egregiously and illegally with regard to the presidential appointment.
     The gist of the remarks that follow is that, prior to the September meeting, Williams approached minority trustee Dave Lang in an attempt to broker a deal between the board majority and the board minority regarding the upcoming presidential appointment. Williams’ own testimony makes this clear. It also implies that he sought, on behalf of the majority, specifically to secure an “unopposed” or “unanimous” vote for Raghu Mathur as  IVC president. These circumstances imply that the majority had already agreed privately to support Mathur’s appointment prior to the meeting on the 8th, in violation of the Brown Act. Further, insofar as Williams was acting on behalf of the board majority, his attempt to broker a deal between the opposing groups on the board in itself constituted a violation of the Brown Act, for it constituted part of an effort to reach a “collective concurrence” through secret or private communications.
     Perhaps inadvertently, Williams has provided useful testimony in establishing these facts. On March 12, 1998, he signed a legal “declaration” regarding events referred to in our suit. In paragraph 7 of his declaration, Williams acknowledges that, prior to the September 8 board meeting, he spoke with Lang. According to Williams, during that conversation, he expressed his “hope” that the Sept. 8 presidential vote would be “unanimous or at least unopposed.” Later in the declaration, Williams adds:
At that time I also asked Mr. Lang whether it would be possible to reach a compromise on the Mathur appointment with the Board members who opposed his appointment; however, Mr. Lang never responded back to me on that issue. 
     Just what do these assertions tell us? In the highlighted sentence, Williams implies that there exists, first, a group of board members (in fact, the so called “board minority” of Lang, Hueter, and Milchiker) who oppose Mathur’s appointment and, second, a group (in fact, the so-called “board majority” of Williams, Frogue, Fortune, and Lorch) who support it. Further, in that sentence, Williams clearly describes himself as attempting to broker an agreement, a deal—he uses the term “compromise”—between these two opposing groups regarding the Mathur appointment. He implies that, in his conversation with Lang, he regarded the trustee as a representative of the minority group that opposed Mathur’s appointment. Finally, in the last part of Williams’ remark, he describes himself as waiting for a minority “response” from Lang.
     Williams’ choice of the word “compromise” is illuminating. Observe that, by definition, a compromise involves concessions made by each of two opposing parties relative to some decision or action. With respect to the September 8 meeting, the salient decision or action was the selection of a president by majority vote among the seven trustees. But since Mr. Williams knew that his group—the four persons of the “majority”—already had the votes to appoint their man Mathur as IVC president, Williams’ compromise was not an effort simply to gain Mathur’s appointment. That Mathur would be voted in as IVC president was already a done deal, and everyone knew it. (Bear in mind that each of the board majority had already voted—in April—to make Mathur interim president of IVC. Further, when the 8th arrived, each of the board majority did in fact vote for Mathur.)
     For Williams, what was not yet a done deal was the nature of the majority vote through which Mathur would win appointment—that is, whether it would be a mere majority vote or a unanimous vote. To the board majority, politically, a unanimous vote in support of Mathur would be much better than a 4-3 split along the usual lines. The occurrence of yet another 4-3 board majority victory would validate the already widely-held belief that the board majority were imposing their will on everyone else within the district. As we saw, in his declaration, Williams acknowledges that, during his conversation with Lang, he expressed hope that the presidential vote would be “unanimous or at least unopposed.” Then he speaks of attempting to broker a “compromise” between the two trustee groups. What else would this compromise be about if not the adjustment of minority member votes in order to achieve unanimity?
     I submit that there is no reasonable alternative to my interpretation of Williams’ talk of “a compromise” in paragraph 7. In a moment, I shall present facts that clinch the matter.
Williams’ word “compromise” implies concessions on both sides—one does not speak of a “compromise” when only one side concedes something. Curiously, though Williams seems to allude to the proposed minority concession—namely, refraining from voting against Mathur—he fails to refer in any way to the majority concession. One  obvious question raised, then, by paragraph 7 of the Williams declaration is: what was the majority’s concession supposed to be in the deal—the “compromise”—that Williams, by his own admission, sought to broker prior to the September 8 board meeting?

     The question is answered by others who have given, or who will soon give, testimony, through declarations, regarding these events. According to that testimony, on the 5th of September (and after his conversation with Williams), Lang called Terry Burgess—then an Irvine Valley College VP and Mathur’s supposed nemesis—and related to him the “deal” offered by Williams. According to Burgess, et alia, the deal was that, in exchange for the minority’s cooperation in securing an unopposed or unanimous Mathur vote, Burgess and VP Pam Deegan would have their contracts renewed. (It is possible that, at first, the deal called for the minority to vote for Mathur; later, in response to its apparent failure, the deal was adjusted by Williams so that it only called for the minority to refrain from voting against  Mathur.)
     This is extraordinary. In effect, Williams was saying: “Vote for Mathur, or we’ll fire your favorite IVC administrators.”
     (It is significant that this is the second episode in which the board majority had offered similar contract renewals for Burgess and Deegan in return for “cooperation”—read “coercion”—with the Evil 4. Unfortunately, because this first sleazy attempt is the subject of pending litigation, I cannot discuss the particulars.)
     Later that day, Lang, Burgess, Deegan, and one other IVC VP [Bob Loeffler] met at a Coco’s restaurant. They had assembled, of course, to discuss the deal—the “compromise”—that Williams was offering. According to Burgess and others, Lang made clear that Williams was offering the deal, not on his own initiative, but on behalf of the board majority.
     After a few words from Lang, Burgess and Deegan immediately said that they did not want to be the beneficiaries of this deal. “Don’t do us this favor,” they said. Reportedly, Lang, who no doubt recoiled at the idea that, by rejecting the “compromise,” he would be the one who caused or permitted the firing of the excellent Burgess and Deegan, expressed relief at their response, for he was very troubled by the deal and clearly hoped to avoid making the decision whether to participate in it.
     At some point thereafter, Lang called minority trustee Joan Hueter and apprised her of Williams’ offer and the day’s events. Hueter made clear that there was no way she would have gone along with this so-called “compromise.” It appears that, at least by then, Lang recognized that, even had Burgess and Deegan supported it, he would not have gone along with the arrangement.
     Lang also called Williams to inform him that the deal was definitely off.
     The next morning—Saturday, the 6th  of September—then-Chancellor Robert Lombardi called Burgess to urge him to support the deal and to bring Deegan on board. Apparently, Lombardi had spoken with Williams, who informed him of the failure of the attempted “compromise” arrangement. (How Lombardi learned of the deal’s failure is not clear, but that he spoke with Williams seems certain. Observe that the Brown Act prohibits secret “serial meetings” among, not only trustees, but staff, such as the Chancellor.) Lombardi, who, it is said, suffers from an exaggerated sense of his persuasive powers, thought that he could bring Burgess around, but, even after a half hour, Burgess, speaking on his own and Deegan’s behalf, hadn’t budged.
     After the Lombardi phone call, Burgess felt obliged to inform Deegan about it, and so he phoned her, but Deegan, too, was resolute. There was no way she was going along with this sleazy deal. Following that phone call, Burgess called Lang to inform him of Lombardi’s phone call and Burgess and Deegan’s continued refusal to cooperate with such a repulsive arrangement.

     I should emphasize that, by all accounts, Lang was at best extremely uncomfortable with Williams’ proposal. I have been told that, at some point, Williams tried to induce Lang to support Mathur’s candidacy by promising support for Lang during the December trustee officer “elections.” That is, in exchange for Lang’s vote now, Williams would support Lang for treasurer in December. Lang rejected this out of hand. Probably, Lang was less quick to reject the “Burgess and Deegan” proposal because he recognized that the jobs of two people he greatly respected were at stake.

So what?
     Observe that there is a great difference between, on the one hand, attempting to persuade someone to vote for a particular candidate on the basis of his merits and, on the other hand,∞providing someone with an incentive to vote for the candidate (or to refrain from voting against him) that has nothing to do with his merits—e.g., proposing to pay for the favorable vote or threatening some evil if the favorable vote does not materialize. Usually, the former kind of persuasion is legitimate; generally, however, the latter kind of persuasion is sleazy and unethical—terms that clearly apply to Mr. Williams’ conduct and the conduct of others, if any, among the board majority who participated in hatching this extortive “compromise” deal.
     No matter what the details were, Mr. Williams’ attempts, during a private conversation with a trustee prior to a board meeting, to broker a deal between opposing trustee camps regarding an upcoming vote, was an assault on the ideal of open and honest government.
     With the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state of California has wisely forbidden private agreements among members of “legislative bodies”—e.g., community college trustees. We believe that, prior to the Sept. 8 meeting, Mr. Williams and his compatriots secretly agreed, through private conversations, to support Raghu Mathur and, further, secretly pursued a deal concerning the presidential appointment with their opponents on the board. These actions were violations of the Brown Act.
     I should add that, on the 5th of September, the district PIO contacted IVC requesting photographs of Mr. Mathur to be sent by the 8th. Draw your own conclusions.
     Especially when one considers the details of this episode—the terms of the agreement, etc.—can there really be any doubt at all that Mr. Williams and his allies are unfit for public office?

     Williams: “Prior to the Sept. 8, 1997 Board meeting, I spoke to Trustee David Lang, who voted in the minority against the Mathur appointment, and told him that I hoped that the Board’s appointment to a position as significant as president of Irvine Valley College would be unanimous or at least unopposed. I did not request Mr. Lang to vote in any particular way or not to vote, nor did I ask him how he would vote. Mr. Lang did not tell me how he intended to vote. At that time I also asked Mr. Lang whether it would be possible to reach a compromise on the Mathur appointment with the Baord members who opposed his appointment; however, Mr. Lang never responded back to me on that issue.”

See September 1998 Depositions

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