CAL-Card Liability

During plenary, many faculty members expressed dismay over the revoking of nearly all CAL-Cards across campus. A total of 163 cards were used by staff and faculty members to purchase items such as supplies for classes, travel with students, and food for children at the Early Childhood Education Lab School, and now that number has been reduced to 13.

VP of Finance Steven Garcia said the reduction was necessary in order to enforce internal controls and reduce liability. Yet three of those remaining cards will remain in the President’s office. This is troubling. Documents obtained under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) suggests that the real risk of liability lies squarely with the President, where CAL-Cards have been used contrary to both state laws and Board policy.

President Blake has used her CAL-Card extensively for travel. Documents show that in a little over two years, President Blake charged over $33,000 in travel expenses. One trip in particular—a conference in Puerto Vallarta—is a perfect example of CAL-Card abuse.

Government Code and Palomar Board Policy mandate that the Board approve any travel outside of the U.S., but President Blake neither sought nor obtained Board approval for her travel to Puerto Vallarta (it never appeared on any Governing Board agenda). She did, however, file travel claims forms with the District after the fact, and these forms demonstrate mishandling of financial documents including CAL-Card misuse.

For example, Blake requested reimbursement for two meals for a total of $182.74. The receipts for this reimbursement were attached to her travel form, but one receipt was not itemized. It is important to know here that Itemized receipts for meal and hotel bills are required by law and board policy in order to ensure that District funds are spent in ways conforming to Government Code. Not only was there no itemized receipt, but the amount of that meal was over $150—an amount far above the government-allotted per diem for a single meal.

As CAL-Cards are a type of credit card where the District automatically pays the charges, the most disturbing thing about the aforementioned transaction is that Blake requested personal reimbursement for the two meals charged to her CAL-Card.

Blake later requested that the Palomar College Foundation pick up the tab for the Puerto Vallarta trip instead of the District. Documents obtained show that Blake requested that the Foundation also reimburse her for the $182.74, and a Foundation budget transaction report shows that Blake was, in fact, reimbursed for these meals, even though they were already paid for via the CAL-card (i.e., not out of her own pocket). Food for thought on this.

The Puerto Vallarta trip is only one example of many irregularities discovered in Blake’s travel documents. Other travel forms submitted by Blake reveal further inconsistencies with state law and Board Policies. Those anomalies are itemized here:

  • All travel forms (including the President’s) require prior approval of the travel, and then approval of actual expenses claimed upon returning. These signatures act as internal controls providing oversight and accountability to prevent fraud, theft and abuse. Over 75% of Blake’s travel forms obtained in the CPRA request lacked the required oversight signature on the claims side of the form.

  • There are at least two additional instances where Blake used the Palomar College CAL-Card to pay for an expense and then requested personal reimbursement for that same expense.

  • Almost half of the travel forms were missing the required detailed hotel invoices.

  • There was at least one occasion when Blake traveled without any claim form. However, Cal-Card statements and budget transaction reports clearly indicate that the College paid for the trip.

  • Several forms claimed hotel expenses that did not match the actual hotel invoice.

  • One form claimed expenses for a hotel that was in a different city and month than the conference. The conference required a three day stay, but the hotel invoice attached was for a four day stay.

  • Several forms did not have meal receipts, flight receipts and public transportation receipts making reconciliation impossible.

The sheer volume and complexity of the documents we obtained are daunting, but we will gladly provide them as evidence should any outside agency wish to perform an audit.

Did the College suffer from poor internal controls, or were Blake’s travel documents an anomaly? After speaking with numerous people from among faculty, staff, and administrators, we discovered that seemingly everyone is required to submit travel documents regardless of whether they receive a reimbursement or not, and all charges to CAL-cards for hotels and meals must be accompanied by itemized receipts. Everyone, that is, except for one person, and that person appears to be President Blake. It appears that Blake is overriding the internal controls that exist when it comes to her own expenses. Adding support to that argument is the response we received when we asked for justification as to why Blake was exempt from following state laws and board policies.

There’s more at play here beyond the massive and sudden CAL Card revocation. In addition to the above-mentioned travel documents and the gifts of public funds documents that were outlined in the San Diego Bulldog, additional documents have been obtained that reveal highly questionable expenses while Palomar exists in a state of extreme “belt-tightening.” These include a $1000 donation to a non-profit organization using the general fund along with retreats for administrators and campus leaders that go beyond the “reasonable and necessary” standard for government spending.

In fact, just a few days before President Blake stood on stage in front of the college campus expressing the dire need to reduce spending, she held a retreat for her administrative cabinet of about twenty people. Was this meeting held in our new library’s conference room (or any other suitable location on campus) with food brought in? It was not. It was held at Urge Gastropub in San Marcos, a not-inexpensive venue.

The District is currently deficit spending to the tune of $7 million per year. Evidence presented both on this blog and in articles by local journalists have revealed a pattern of secretive, reckless, and costly decision-making: the million-dollar Presidential suite, the simultaneous openings of both the South and North Education Centers with minimal cost analysis, the rush to engage in a risky student housing project without an independent feasibility study and broad dialogue with stakeholders, to name just a few.

Everyone rowing in the same direction sounds good, but it will not work if the captain of the boat is drilling holes in our hull.

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