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Going off the rails on a gravy train?

Alleged conflicts of interest within county office of education

More than one questionable case has led to investigations and a hiring freeze.
More than one questionable case has led to investigations and a hiring freeze.

For years, the San Diego County Office of Education, the agency responsible for overseeing and allocating funding for 35 school districts in San Diego County, has turned to legal firm Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz to defend individual school districts in court.

In recent years, as reported by the Reader and other publications, alleged conflict-of-interest issues have been raised due to the fact that Diane Crosier, one of the people in charge of the office of education's risk-management department once worked for Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz.

Late last year, the San Ysidro School District sued attorney Shinoff and the firm for allegedly failing to bring settlement offers to boardmembers for consideration. In March, as reported by the U-T, the office of education announced that it would not hire the firm again until the malpractice suit is heard.

But Crosier's connection with Shinoff's firm is not the only potential conflict of interest at the office of education.

For more than 12 years, nearly $100,000 has been paid to private investigators from ESI International Incorporated, run by Robert Price. Much of that money has been paid to investigator Chris Jensen for surveillance and research on claims made to the agency.

Since 2003, Jensen's wife Lisa Jensen has worked as senior claims representative for the San Diego County Office of Education. One of Jensen's tasks was to write checks to outside firms, including ESI International.

According to public records obtained by the Reader, Jensen and her colleagues wrote checks to ESI for surveillance work in cases throughout the county, including investigation work in the lawsuit filed by the parents of Scott Eveland, a student and football player at Mission Hills High School in San Marcos who suffered a traumatic brain injury during a game. Eveland's family later settled the lawsuit for $4.375 million in 2012.

Other documents show Chris Jensen, through ESI, charging the office of education and National City School District nearly $1200 to travel to the downtown Superior Court building to obtain copies of criminal files in an unrelated case. Jensen was also reimbursed for mileage driven and for photocopies made.

In September 2013, as reported by the Reader, Sweetwater Unified School District's then-superintendant Ed Brand, who has since been accused of collecting thousands in pension benefits while simultaneously collecting a salary, asked his colleagues to pay ESI International over $65,000 to investigate employees. That request was later scrapped.

A spokeswoman for the office of education says much of the time Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz had already hired ESI before the county agency's joint powers authority made any payments on certain claims.

The office of education has since suspended future hiring in order to avoid any future potential conflicts.

“[The San Diego County Office of Education] has directed [Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz] to refrain from subcontracting to ESI on any and all [joint powers authority]-related cases in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest," writes spokesperson Music Watson. "The [joint powers authority] is reviewing all cases being handled by the firm to make sure no conflicts exist.​"

(corrected 4/21, 1:40 p.m.)

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More than one questionable case has led to investigations and a hiring freeze.
More than one questionable case has led to investigations and a hiring freeze.

For years, the San Diego County Office of Education, the agency responsible for overseeing and allocating funding for 35 school districts in San Diego County, has turned to legal firm Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz to defend individual school districts in court.

In recent years, as reported by the Reader and other publications, alleged conflict-of-interest issues have been raised due to the fact that Diane Crosier, one of the people in charge of the office of education's risk-management department once worked for Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz.

Late last year, the San Ysidro School District sued attorney Shinoff and the firm for allegedly failing to bring settlement offers to boardmembers for consideration. In March, as reported by the U-T, the office of education announced that it would not hire the firm again until the malpractice suit is heard.

But Crosier's connection with Shinoff's firm is not the only potential conflict of interest at the office of education.

For more than 12 years, nearly $100,000 has been paid to private investigators from ESI International Incorporated, run by Robert Price. Much of that money has been paid to investigator Chris Jensen for surveillance and research on claims made to the agency.

Since 2003, Jensen's wife Lisa Jensen has worked as senior claims representative for the San Diego County Office of Education. One of Jensen's tasks was to write checks to outside firms, including ESI International.

According to public records obtained by the Reader, Jensen and her colleagues wrote checks to ESI for surveillance work in cases throughout the county, including investigation work in the lawsuit filed by the parents of Scott Eveland, a student and football player at Mission Hills High School in San Marcos who suffered a traumatic brain injury during a game. Eveland's family later settled the lawsuit for $4.375 million in 2012.

Other documents show Chris Jensen, through ESI, charging the office of education and National City School District nearly $1200 to travel to the downtown Superior Court building to obtain copies of criminal files in an unrelated case. Jensen was also reimbursed for mileage driven and for photocopies made.

In September 2013, as reported by the Reader, Sweetwater Unified School District's then-superintendant Ed Brand, who has since been accused of collecting thousands in pension benefits while simultaneously collecting a salary, asked his colleagues to pay ESI International over $65,000 to investigate employees. That request was later scrapped.

A spokeswoman for the office of education says much of the time Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz had already hired ESI before the county agency's joint powers authority made any payments on certain claims.

The office of education has since suspended future hiring in order to avoid any future potential conflicts.

“[The San Diego County Office of Education] has directed [Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz] to refrain from subcontracting to ESI on any and all [joint powers authority]-related cases in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest," writes spokesperson Music Watson. "The [joint powers authority] is reviewing all cases being handled by the firm to make sure no conflicts exist.​"

(corrected 4/21, 1:40 p.m.)

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Comments
33

The web gets very tangled. You can bet there is more.

April 20, 2015

This whole deal with the COE and Shineon's law firm could be a bigger scandal than the So County prosecutions. I've read, probably in the U-T Watchdog, that Shineon has been doing business with most of the county's school districts.

Why now is the COE telling the districts to stop sending legal cases to Shineon? That's a pretty drastic step to take, and the rest of the reports here make it sound as if there is some serious wrongdoing being uncovered.

After watching the mess at Sweetwater, Southwestern, and San Ysidro, and seeing the COE do absolutely nothing until it was forced by a judicial order to step in at Sweetwater, we can get a picture of malfeasance. Neither the county board, nor its superintendent, was meeting its legal mandates for oversight of local districts. Suddenly, Shineon and his gang are off-limits, and they're looking closely at possible conflicts. Well, what was the whole So County picture if not a massive conflict? And yet through it all, Shineon and his lackeys kept billing the districts for thousands of hours and raking in millions.

Someone is on to something. The COE has never shown this sort of backbone before, and yet the same pack of knaves are on the board, and the same knave-in-chief is still the superintendent.

For those members of the comment "club" in the So County reports from Susan Luzzaro, I hope that Dorian can keep up with this constant source of news. He's one of the best reporters for digging out the dirt, and we should all welcome his involvement, whether it is just temporary or a permanent beat.

April 20, 2015

Yes, it is very sad that Susan Luzzaro no longer has a place at the Reader. Many things do not make sense, and this is one of them.

April 21, 2015

Eastlaker and others, please feel free to send me any info or tips on So County. I'll do my best to bring anything I can to light. [email protected]

April 21, 2015

You could have a field day looking into East County School Districts as well.

April 22, 2015

Hi Visduh. I wasn't aware that Susan had left until reading these comments. It's a bummer she's gone. She did a great job at keeping the spotlight on some of these issues. I'll definitely be giving South County a closer look now that she has left. Thx. -dH

April 21, 2015

Sounds like the CPUC. Time to shut it down and get rid of everybody and start over. Prosecute using RICO.

April 21, 2015

Alex, is your only solution to these political scandals to use RICO? There's a saying that "when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Just kidding, of course. But RICO seems to be losing its punch, and court decisions have started to corral its use. For a time, RICO was invoked for many criminal cases where it was never intended.

April 21, 2015

Visduh: True but I think there are probably many tools in the legal tool belt I just think that these out of control agencies should be hammered hard. The powers-that-be need to use every tool available to ensure that the public is being properly served by these agencies.

April 21, 2015

At some point, it starts to look like the "powers-that-be" are part of the problem.

April 21, 2015

Precisely! Over and over in local and state politics in recent years, the fox has been guarding the hen house. If the "powers that be" had been on the job, the past two decades of corruption, malfeasance and just a total disregard of duty in those three So County school districts would have been stopped short years ago. The "powers", including the county office of education, the district attorney, the attorney general, and even the feds utterly dropped the ball until the mess was too big to hide or ignore. Then we were treated to a noisy prosecution, a judge who put off the action for many critical months, and then a rollover on punishment. The best that came out of it was removal of trustees, a couple of "supes" going to jail for short sentences, and the destruction of political and educational careers of the miscreants. But did anyone do hard time in state prison for any of those dozens (hundreds) of felonies charged? Nope. John McCann is on the CV city council, seemingly untouched by all the scandal that he touched and orchestrated.

Sorry, but the powers don't really care about those districts or cities or water districts in So County and the conflicts therein. That fact makes me think that the powers are similarly out-to-lunch in other parts of the county, too. It may be that those other areas just have better and more informed voters who actually pay some attention to the people they elect.

April 21, 2015

Visduh: I am afraid that you are correct which leaves no solution to the problem short of revolution.

April 22, 2015

There can be a sort of institutional revolution if the voters act diligently, learn what they can about the candidates, and then later on insist that the elected officials do the things they promised. The Poway school district had a huge stink-o about the bond financing, and those who aided and abetted the deal are now off the school board. Note that it took only one bad move for all hell to break loose in Poway.

South County on the other hand seemed to suffer from voters who voted for familiar names, voting for incumbents regardless of the outrageous things they did, and voting for those of the same ethnic background without knowing a thing about them.

A revolution can come from the bottom if the voters get informed, and hold the promise-making candidates to their words at re-election time. And that's a far better bulwark against corruption and malfeasance than any bunch of prosecutors and cops.

April 22, 2015

I have heard rumblings that all is still not well within Poway. Apparently the superintendent's actions and some of the contract negotiation points do not pass the sniff test.

April 23, 2015

You know more than I do about it, I'm sure. But the difference is that when the administration or board in Poway jump the tracks, there's notice taken, and voters learn about it. In So County for too long, and with this county board, little note was made of some really outrageous things that went on for years. If there are rumblings in Poway, I'd guess we can soon learn of fallout from them.

April 24, 2015

There is no excuse for the widespread corruption that still lingers in Sweetwater--but getting the info to the public has been more than half the battle!! Some people out there just do NOT want the people to know!!!

April 24, 2015

In the 15 year career of Superintendent Ed Brand he has done a lot more wheeling and dealing and mismanagement than mentioned here. Collecting double pay checks for him is child's play. The literally millions of dollars thrown away or thrown to line authority pockets is incomprehensible. Susan touched a nerve and got to the horror of it. This is a runaway money train; corruption at it's worst.

April 21, 2015

eastlaker - or was it 20 years minus a short retirement after the move to San Marcos avoiding fallout didn't pay?

April 21, 2015

I think the problems with drawing both retirement and salary were due to the return to Sweetwater, when he was hired as "Ed Brand and Associates" and went over the capped amount allowable for salary while also drawing retirement. Which then continued for several years. ( "Associates" being his wife). Dianne Russo is in similar trouble--I believe both of them are appealing, but the ruling was that they had to pay money back and pay some penalties, I believe. All of which was predicted by the teachers' group, who very plainly stated these problems from the outset. The Sweetwater board, of course, ignored all warnings and went their merry way. (The exact number of years Ed Brand has paid into the retirement system I cannot tell you--I would think it would include his years teaching and his years as an administrator).

April 21, 2015

Dorian - I'm pretty sure she didn't/wouldn't just "leave". But that's a whole other scandalous story. Nobody did it better than Luzzaro and who did reader cowtow to? The guilt reaches the top.

April 21, 2015

ShirleyBeran, you know more than I do. I'm just responding to previous comments. Like I said, I had no clue she was gone and definitely don't know the reasons for it. I will say one thing, I am sure it wasn't because the Reader was kowtowing to any one. While not having the background and the expertise that Ms. Luzzaro has re: South Bay, I promise to look into any tips/leads sent my way, regardless where they come from. And, I assure you I will not be told to do otherwise. Thx -dH

April 21, 2015

Cow is with a "k" ?

April 21, 2015

Kowtow is, yes. From "kau tau in Cantonese is the act of deep respect shown by prostration...-dH

April 21, 2015

Well, "cowtown" is spelled with a c! ;-)

April 21, 2015

Cowtown is with a "c" and Kowtow is with a "k" as in the officials kowtowed in the cowtown.

April 22, 2015

dwbat - I think if Dorian wants to be fair he should disclose he is male.

April 21, 2015

I'm not sure what his being a male has to do with being fair. In any case, I think pretty much everyone, or at least almost everyone, who reads the Reader on even a semi-regular basis knows that Dorian is a guy. Or you could always just look at his bio page.

April 22, 2015

DanFogel, you found me out. I am a male, a very good looking one at that! I suspect that exchange about me having to disclose it was an inside joke between the Dwbat and ShirleyBeran. I didn't feel the need to interject. Thx -dH

April 22, 2015

Huh? I'm confused now, Dorian. I never had such an inside joke with ShirleyBeran. We're not "chummy" at all. And I never knew she even had a sense of humor.

April 22, 2015

She does??

April 22, 2015

Why did you address that to me, shirleyberan? And why would anyone even think Dorian was female? That makes no sense to the discussion here.

April 22, 2015

There should also be an investigative story in to Susan Luzzaro's coverage of education and the school districts. She routinely penned "news stories" about the school districts and board members without disclosing that she has several family members that are current or past Teachers Union officials. Her articles always seem to mirror precisely what is coming out of the mouths of the various union bosses. Conflict of interest.

April 23, 2015

Because dwbat believes he's quite the wit, egotist, don't care what he doesn't understand or thinks he has to explain to me. sjtorres is just a hater-troll and sorry Dorian, I'm not a follower. You could never replace the beauty or intelligence of Susan. Now all I see in the Reader is Bauder.

April 23, 2015

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