Sweetwater Union High School District superintendent Ed Brand’s request for funds to employ a private investigation agency, to be used at his discretion, was withdrawn by staff at the September 24 board meeting.
Brand argued that the firm, ESI International, is necessary to investigate employees. However, on September 6 an ESI investigator turned up at the door of Kathleen Cheers, a community advocate, who frequently speaks at board meetings.
Brand initially asked for $50,000 in December 2012 for ESI. He came back to the board on August 19 asking for an additional $65,172 to pay for invoices already received during the 2012–2013 school year. Brand also asked the trustees to approve $100,000 to employ the company for the next school year.
Cheers stated that she was out of the house when investigator Christopher Jensen came to her house. He left his card. Cheers told the board, “I was one of Ed Brand’s targets. I spoke to a former vice president of a Fortune 500 company who worked in an investigative department — he said when you spend close to $200 k, that could entail tailing and dumpster diving…. What is Ed Brand looking for? Why is he so paranoid? Who else is his target?”
Cheers shows up to board meetings and bond-oversight committee meetings armed with data and research. According to Cheers, the investigator wanted to know where she obtained the information she used to make a point at a bond meeting. During an interview, Cheers showed the Reader proof that she obtained it from the district website.
Kevin O’Neill, another community member who addressed the board, said, “If you’re losing tires out of the bus barn, if you’re losing steaks out of the cafeteria, you go to the DA or the local police. He [Brand] should not be investigating any of you [trustees]; that is wrong on so many levels, not the least of which is he owes his job to you and you don’t want him to have anything over you…. If he’s investigating civilians you’re opening yourself to some fairly severe liability; this [investigator] has no police powers and he should never have approached a citizen without a phone call first.”
Brand told the trustees that ESI had initially been engaged two and a half years ago, when 50 or 60 food-service employees were “thought to be doing something inappropriate.” He continued, “they have due process rights, as we all do, so we contracted an outside third party.”
In further presenting his case, Brand said ESI has capabilities and “can access emails and cell phones and connect the dots.”
Brand also pointed out that the district has over 5000 employees and “you may not hear the word ESI when we do our monthly deliberation about employees or discipline issues, but sometimes the facts that are brought forward to HR is because of the information brought forward by ESI…. Sometimes we investigate and find out it’s just rumor.”
Trustee Pearl Quiñones stated: “I can’t vote on something when I don’t even know what I’m voting for, when I don’t even know what he’s investigating…. I’ve heard rumors, but I’ve never received an update.” She pointed out that the request for funding stated that the superintendent would update the board.
Trustee Bertha Lopez said she only remembers seeing a three-sentence update in July on what ESI was doing; she wants a detailed report. She also is concerned that the superintendent went $65,000 over budget without board consent. Lopez said, “I’m kind of perplexed…because if my principal was to say you only have $100 to go and spend on teaching supplies and if I go and spend $170, do you think the principal is going to pay me the $70? Heck, no; he’s only going to pay me the $100.”
At this point, the board took a short recess. During the recess, trustee John McCann, who had just returned to his position after recovering from a car accident, left the meeting. When the remaining trustees returned to the dais, the clerk of the board announced that “staff has withdrawn the item.”