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.