The Mercury News

Napolitano flunks trust test at hearing


University of California President Janet Napolitano on Tuesday used a tried-and-true deflective strategy when grilled by legislator­s in Sacramento about a scathing audit of her office and the burgeoning furor surroundin­g it.

The strategy goes like this: Mistakes were made. We didn’t mean to. It looks bad in retrospect. We’re real sorry. Let’s move on.

Uh, not just yet. The allegation­s at play here deserve much deeper exploratio­n.

As Republican Assemblyma­n Dante Acosta put it, “Often, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Here, I think we might have a mushroom cloud.”

Let’s begin not with the audit itself, but with attempts by Napolitano’s office to obstruct it.

Auditor Elaine Howle said that the UC Office of the President interfered with her work by reviewing surveys sent independen­tly to the UC’s 10 campus leaders. Those surveys carried an express warning not to share them with anyone outside the campus. Yet they were shared with Napolitano’s office and, after review by that office, changes were made that reflected more positively on UC’s operations.

“In my 17 years as state auditor, we have never had a situation like this,” Howle said Tuesday. That is a devastatin­g claim because Howle has seen a thing or two in her days.

Napolitano claims that she didn’t try to manipulate the campus answers and that her office only got involved when the campuses asked for help interpreti­ng what she said were complex documents.

However, staff emails obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle seem to reveal a much more heavy hand from the Office of the President.

Perhaps even more damning was the audit’s discovery of more than $175 million in previously undisclose­d reserves at a time when the Board of Regents plans to once again raise tuition and fees that are already unaffordab­le for most students.

Napolitano’s office not only kept the reserves hidden from the public, but also from the regents.

On Tuesday, Napolitano maintained that most of the money identified by Howle is actually committed to presidenti­al initiative­s that directly benefit the university’s educationa­l and research missions.

We have a name for that: presidenti­al slush fund.

Then there is the excessive spending for top members of Napolitano’s staff. The audit revealed 10 executives in the office received $3.7 million in fiscal year 2014-15 — more than $700,000 above the combined salaries of their highest paid state employee counterpar­ts.

Although the Legislatur­e is not the governing body here, there is a bundle of taxpayer money at stake and lawmakers should investigat­e further.

Meanwhile, as we have already said, it time to rein in spending in Napolitano’s office and open its operationa­l practices to sunlight. The regents should ask Napolitano directly if she is up to that task. If not, they should replace her.

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