UC President Janet Napolitano's aides interfered in audit of her office, investigation finds

Top aides to University of California President Janet Napolitano interfered with a state audit of her office’s finances, suppressing campus criticism of its services and operations, according to findings of an investigation ordered by the UC Board of Regents.

Napolitano approved a plan instructing UC campuses to submit responses to confidential questionnaires for review by each college’s chancellor and her aides before returning them to the state auditor, according to the fact-finding report obtained by The Times. Those steps and others “constituted interference,” the investigation said.

“Based on the foregoing review, we conclude that members of the president’s executive office did interfere with the surveys,” stated the report by former state Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno and the Hueston Hennigan law firm. It added: “We further conclude that two members of the president’s staff undertook these actions with the specific purpose of shaping the responses to be less critical of” the UC Office of the President.

Though Napolitano knew about the plan to review the survey responses, investigators said there was “insufficient evidence to conclude that she was aware of [the aides’] conduct in purposefully and systematically targeting unfavorable responses.”

Napolitano’s chief of staff, Seth Grossman, and deputy chief of staff, Bernie Jones, resigned last week. They told investigators that the plan to review the responses was a “bad decision and an error in judgment.”

Napolitano told investigators that she regretted approving the plan and said she did not intend to interfere with the surveys, but instead wanted to ensure that campus responses were within the audit’s scope and accurately reflected the chancellors’ opinions.

“She said she regrets the allegation of interference because that was not the intent and it detracts from the fact that [the UC president’s office] accepted all of the state auditor’s recommendations in her audit report and has changed its procedures,” the report said.

State Auditor Elaine Howle did not include the survey results in the audit because she determined they were tainted.

The audit, released in April, found that Napolitano’s office paid excessive salaries and benefits to its top executives and did not disclose to the UC Board of Regents, the Legislature and the public $175 million in budget reserve funds that could have helped stave off a 2.5% tuition increase this fall.

Grossman said through a spokesman that he did nothing wrong and had cleared his conduct with university attorneys and internal auditors. His spokesman said he resigned to take a job in Washington as chief of staff and counselor to American University President Sylvia M. Burwell.

Jones told The Times in April that allegations of interference were groundless. He did not respond to an email last week asking if he had resigned because of the investigation.

Officials at some of the 10 campuses surveyed told investigators that Grossman and Jones instructed them in a conference call that they should not “air dirty laundry,” and suggested revisions to negative responses. The two aides said they did not recall making that comment.

Grossman and Jones sought to conceal their efforts from the auditor, the investigation found. Grossman sent a text message to Jones to keep communications “off of email.” He later sent a text message to Jones saying, “Don’t want anything in email that could be problematic if made it (sic) way back to auditor,” according to the report.

The interference “was likely to, and in at least one case did, chill campuses’ responses to the state auditor,” the investigation concluded.

In an interview with investigators, Napolitano described the relationship with the state auditor’s office at the time of the audit as “toxic” because of a previous negative audit of nonresident college admissions that university officials felt was rife with inaccuracies.

Although Napolitano’s staff ran the basic review plan by the university’s general counsel, the attorney was not asked if the office could alter survey responses to remove negative comments, the investigation found.

The investigators said putting campus chancellors on notice that their survey responses would be reviewed by the president’s office had an intimidating effect.

“In adopting such a plan, [the UC Office of the President] was affirmatively notifying each campus chancellor that he or she would be seen as the responsible party for any statement critical of UCOP in the survey responses,” the report said.

“Numerous campus witnesses, including at least one chancellor stated that the knowledge that UCOP would be reviewing their responses caused them to respond to the surveys differently than they otherwise would have,” it continued.

The report laid bare tensions between Napolitano’s office and chancellors. Some chancellors, campus officials said, have chafed under what they regard as a top-down, heavy-handed management style by Napolitano and Grossman, especially in controlling information and messaging to the public. Former UC President Mark Yudof was characterized as less intrusive in campus affairs.

The report detailed numerous witness accounts of efforts by the president’s office to control the campus survey responses, some of which Napolitano and her aides denied or said they did not recall.

A witness at a Nov. 10, 2016, meeting with Napolitano told investigators the UC president was “very upset” about the auditors’ conduct.

Updates from Sacramento »

“This witness recalls the president asking how UCOP could get more ‘control’ over the surveys,” the report said, adding that Napolitano didn’t recall making that comment.

One chancellor told investigators that Napolitano said at a Nov. 15 dinner that campus officials should not be overly negative in the surveys. Napolitano denied making that comment.

After Jones flagged a comment in one draft response calling a UCOP program ineffective, the campus removed it.

A senior official in the UCLA chancellor’s office said they rewrote a response after Jones allegedly said negative reviews “could be used politically to reduce funding” to the Office of the President and the campuses. The remarks were interpreted to “absolutely be a threat,” the report said. Jones told investigators he did not recall making that statement.

The UCLA official also alleged Jones warned him that “the president might need to personally intervene,” adding, “we wouldn’t want to have that happen.”

When the office of UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal sent the survey to auditors without first having it reviewed by the president’s office, the chancellor said, Napolitano called him and was “furious,” telling Blumenthal to recall the response from auditors.

Blumenthal told investigators he revised the response to address concerns raised by Jones.

“President Napolitano’s activities in connection with the survey responses from UC Santa Cruz are the strongest evidence on which to conclude that the president understood that members of her staff were systematically highlighting and sanitizing critical comments from the campuses,” the report said.

Napolitano told investigators she used a “measured tone” with Blumenthal, and her concern was that his campus’ survey had been returned without his review.

Still, the comments Napolitano allegedly made to campus officials affected the responses, investigators found.

“Once that happened, regardless of UCOP’s intent, a ‘chilling’ effect upon campus responses was inevitable,” the report said.

The regents will vote Thursday on corrective actions, including a proposal to bar UC employees from attempting to “obstruct, interfere or in any way attempt to coordinate requests for information in regards to any state audit.”

A new law approved by the Legislature that takes effect Jan. 1 also makes interfering with auditors an offense subject to fines.

Assemblywoman Catharine Baker (R-Dublin), vice chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, called on Napolitano to resign, saying it was egregious that the survey was tampered with by the president’s office.

George Kieffer, UC board chairman, said it was “unfortunate” that the report was leaked and said he would not comment further until regents discussed the matter Thursday. Napolitano was not available for comment.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com; teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Twitter: @mcgreevy99, @TeresaWatanabe

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UPDATES:

4:25 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction from Assemblywoman Catharine Baker.

3:40 p.m.: This article was updated throughout.

This article was originally published at 11:55 a.m.

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