By Ken Epstein
The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is paying consultant Lance Jackson to head its Facilities Planning and Management Department
through the district’s contract with Seville Group Inc. (SGI), while Jackson continues working as an executive of the company, whose owner, along with school board members and a superintendent of schools, pleaded guilty in a corruption scheme in a Southern California school district.
The criminal prosecutions are over, but lawsuits against Seville that came out of the case are slowly moving ahead. Sweetwater Union High School District and San Diegans for Open Government are suing Seville, along with another company, to return $26 million on the grounds that their contracts with the school district were “tainted,” by bribing public officials, and therefore invalid.
In the widely publicized case, which finally concluded last year, a school board member went to jail and a number lost their positions. The district’s superintendent went to jail and paid a fine.
According to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, “Between 2008 and 2011, the defendants frequented San Diego-area restaurants with contractors and others racking up hundreds of dollars in food and drinks at a time, in some cases reaching more than $1,000 per outing. Defendants were given Los Angeles Lakers playoff tickets, concert tickets, theater tickets, Rose Bowl tickets, Southwest Airlines tickets and trips to Pebble Beach and Napa Valley.”
The owner and president of Seville, Rene Flores, cooperated and testified for the prosecution. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was on informal probation until June 20, 2 014.
In addition to his interim consulting position in the school district, Jackson serves as Chief Operating Officer of Seville, part of the company’s seven-member executive leadership team.
Seville receives $30,000 a month, an equivalent of $360,000 a year, for Jackson’s services to OUSD, part of the company’s contract to provide construction management services to the district.
Jackson’s position with the company goes back to 2002, according to Bloomberg.
Seville has a nearly $11 million, three-year contract to provide project management oversight of OUSD’s construction projects. Jackson was hired by the school district as the interim replacement for Tim White, who was forced out of his $156,000-a-year position as head of Facilities Management in February after 14 years in the district.
Seville is being paid for Jackson’s work from school bond funds for what the district estimates is 75 percent of the work that Tim White was doing. As head of Facilities Planning and Management, Jackson oversees the expenditure of at least $435 million in taxpayer bond money.
The Southern California lawsuits are seeking the return of $26 million that SGI of Pasadena and Gilbane of Providence, R.I., received to oversee the Sweetwater district’s $644-million, voter-approved Proposition O bond program and a part of an earlier bond program.
“It was filed to recoup some of the bond (management) fees that we paid,” said Manny Rubio, public information officer of the Sweetwater school district in an interview with the Post.
State law – Government Code 1090 – prohibits officials from entering into a contract in which they have a financial interest and nullifies contracts made in violation of that law.
“The facts really aren’t in dispute. The people that received the gifts admit receiving them. Those that gave the gifts admit giving them,” said John Moot, outside legal counsel for Sweetwater, speaking in an interview with the newspaper U-T San Diego.
Responding to the lawsuit, lawyers for the contractors, Gilbane and Seville, said the district attorney’s charges were inflated, and the gifts to public officials were constitutionally protected free speech.
“Despite the rhetoric and rampant media coverage, the meager slaps on the wrist that flowed from the prosecution utterly belie (the D.A.’s) claims and prove the criminal charges were overblown and lacked evidentiary support,” the lawyers for the two companies said in court papers.
In rejecting one of the defendants’ claims, a San Diego judge in December 2014 ruled that the meals, trips and gifts were criminal acts and not constitutionally protected free speech.
Judge Eddie Sturgeon said that law the contractors cited did not apply if the conduct was illegal. He wrote that the gift were clearly meant to influence the decisions of the school officials, and the guilty pleas of the contractors and officials confirmed that what they did was illegal, according to UT-San Diego.
OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint responded to the Post’s questions about the hiring of Lance Jackson and the payments to SGI in light of the ongoing Southern California lawsuits.
“When we appointed Lance to his current position, we were aware of the investigation in San Diego,” Flint said. “We reviewed the matter to the best of our ability, and we determined that Lance was not involved in any way.”
He continued: “We retain our confidence in Lance based on that review and the caliber of work he’s done for us. We won’t hold what appears to be the actions of a few bad apples against Lance.
“Our work with SGI in general, and with Lance in particular, has been above board and extremely satisfactory. What the owners of the company may or may not have done in Southern California is not reflected in the work with OUSD or in Lance’s performance.”
Attorney Cory Briggs of San Diegans for Open Government told the Post that a trial or settlement to the case may be a year-and-a-half away. “If there’s a conflict of interest, (the companies) have to repay everything they’ve been paid,” he said.
The Post requested but at press time had not received comments from OUSD Board President James Harris or other board members, Lance Jackson or Supt. Antwan Wilson. General Counsel Jacqueline Minor was contacted but was out of the office.