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.)