Committee to investigate whether L.A. community college trustee violated ethics code

A group of Los Angeles Community College District trustees will meet behind closed doors to investigate allegations that member Scott Svonkin violated the board’s code of conduct and threatened another trustee last month.

“He came right in front of my face … he towered over me, blocked me in” and said he would ruin her politically, said Trustee Andra Hoffman. She said the confrontation occurred during a break in the board’s June 7 meeting.

Hoffman, in turn, put forth a resolution to hold a public hearing and ultimately punish Svonkin for his behavior. She pointed out the June incident, a March closed-session meeting in which she alleges that Svonkin “yelled at me in a threatening manner, claiming I was staring at him” and claimed a “pattern of harassment” going back to 2015.

In a board document in response to the resolution, Svonkin called Hoffman’s complaints a “negative and politically charged smear attack” and compared her behavior to President Trump’s.

He said in an interview that conversations between himself and Hoffman were nothing more than passionate discussions about policy, in part related to the district’s $3.3-million bond program.

The trustees were supposed to vote on Hoffman’s resolution on Wednesday — if a majority approved, the board would have held a public hearing at a later meeting, and decide if and how to punish Svonkin.

Instead, board member Ernest Moreno introduced a motion to create an ad hoc committee that would investigate the accusations privately and recommend to the board whether the trustees should have a hearing on Svonkin’s actions. Ad hoc committees are not subject to open meeting laws.

New board President Sydney Kamlager-Dove seconded the motion, and the board approved it 4 to 3.

Kamlager-Dove supported the move to a closed-door committee “in the interest of protecting the public’s time, the business of the district and the privacy of the parties involved,” she said in an interview.

Kamlager-Dove is in charge of deciding who sits on the committee and how big it will be — either two or three people. She said she has not decided which board members will serve on it, or whether she will serve. The committee could use an outside investigator, but that has not been decided, she said.

“The ad hoc committee is going to review, investigate and bring forth useful solutions,” she said. “Those can come from a number of ways and resources.”

Neither Svonkin nor Hoffman is allowed to be on the committee, said Kevin Jeter, the district’s general counsel. The committee will probably take 60 to 90 days to complete its investigation and decide whether there are grounds to punish Svonkin.

When the committee presents its findings and recommendations publicly, the board will vote on the original resolution. If at least four board members vote to move forward with the sanction process, there will be a public hearing at which both sides will be able to present evidence and call witnesses.

For Svonkin to be punished, though, five board members — a supermajority — need to vote in favor.

According to board rules, the possible sanctions include reprimand, censure, being removed from an officer position or losing pay. But the financial punishments are legal only when the misconduct is related to money, Jeter said, and Svonkin is no longer board president. So at most, Svonkin could be reprimanded or censured.

This sanction process has never happened before, Jeter said, so it will be up to the board to decide what reprimand or censure would entail, if it goes that far.

In a telephone interview Friday, Svonkin sounded more conciliatory than in his written response to the resolution.

“I am sorry if I ever made any of my colleagues feel uncomfortable when I argue with them because I am passionately committed to protecting our students and the taxpayers,” he said. “I would never want anyone to feel not comfortable.”

Moving forward, “I’m going to try to be less direct or combative … and not argue with [Hoffman] and just present my case and let the other board members and let the public decide,” Svonkin said. “We have the neediest students in the nation, and that’s what we should be focused on.”

Hoffman said the matter was not just a private dispute between two people, but an indication of inappropriate behavior from a public official.

“He has violated our ethical code of conduct in terms of how we are supposed to behave in public and how we are supposed to treat each other,” she said.

Hoffman voted against the ad hoc committee and still wants to hold a public hearing.

Times reporter Joy Resmovits contributed to this story.

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.

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