College Official Held for Allegedly Looting Fund for the Disabled
A high-ranking California Community Colleges official has been charged with embezzling more than $400,000 from a state fund for disabled student programs.
State Department of Justice agents arrested Robert F. Howard, 42, acting dean of student services and special programs, at the Sacramento offices of the statewide community college system late Monday. Howard was booked into Sacramento County Jail on charges of grand theft and conflict of interest. He was released Tuesday on $50,000 bail.
Howard, on the advice of his attorney, Jim Carroll, declined comment. Carroll said he had no comment on the charges.
But, Carroll said Howard has been recognized as an advocate of the rights of people with disabilities. “He has no criminal background,” Carroll said Tuesday. “He is a solid citizen. The thought of him being arrested was a complete shock.”
Essence of Charges
Howard, who is a paraplegic and uses a wheelchair, allegedly stole several thousand dollars a month since 1983 by funneling payments through a phony consulting company, McNary & McNary, run by his wife and mother-in-law, Special Agent Whitt Murray said Tuesday.
The checks were drawn by the Yosemite Community College District in Modesto, which as the statewide system’s official fiscal agent for the disabled student programs was authorized to make payments on vouchers authorized by Howard’s office.
According to statewide Chancellor David Mertes, the vouchers were signed by Howard and Ronald Dyste, a vice chancellor for student services. But Dyste’s signature was apparently forged, Mertes said.
Howard is still receiving his $51,660 annual salary, but Mertes said he will be placed on administrative leave. Howard’s supervisor, whom Mertes declined to identify, has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the state’s investigation.
Murray said the Justice Department anticipates making additional arrests.
Mertes, who pledged to make the financially troubled college system more efficient when he became chancellor in July, said he was meeting with state auditors Tuesday afternoon to “start an analysis of what went wrong and what can be done to correct” the system’s method for disbursing special funds.
Local college districts are designated to serve essentially as the accounting office for certain programs, such as for disabled students, “as a check and balance,” Mertes said. Such districts are required to keep records on expenditures but are not responsible for controlling how the money is spent or determining whether the money is spent for the appropriate purposes.
“The accusation that $400,000 essentially was stolen from the office is a clear statement that the (accounting) system is not good and (should be) totally revised,” Mertes said.
The chancellor said he hopes the alleged theft is an isolated case, but “I’m not starting off on that presumption.”
He said at least $410,000 was paid to the dummy consulting firm, and he expects the total amount allegedly stolen to grow by the time the investigation is completed.
Mertes said he personally requested the Justice Department investigation three weeks ago after employees raised questions during a series of staff meetings about money management in the $2.2-billion, 106-college system.
“When I started looking around, there was a particular firm, McNary & McNary, that no one seemed to know anything about,” Mertes said. “It was all sort of hush-hush about that company and what they did and what was the product available from it. I became very concerned. . . .”
McNary & McNary apparently was named for Howard’s wife, Pamela McNary Howard, and his mother-in-law, Tusca McNary. The company had no office, but the checks had been mailed to a Sacramento post office box, according to Murray.
As acting dean, Howard oversaw an $870,000 operation, which included coordinating programs for immigrants, welfare recipients and foster parents, as well as for disabled students.
Howard was first hired by the community college system in 1978 as an affirmative action specialist and was appointed acting dean last year. He was described by Mertes as “hard working, a very dedicated individual. I regret very much that he’s involved in this.”
The statewide community college system has been the target of criticism from the Legislature and the governor in recent years for poor fiscal management. Mertes’ predecessor, Joshua Smith, resigned last year largely in frustration over what he said were the weak powers given to the chancellor and the board of governors to make substantial changes.