Lobdell: Hubbard should be placed on leave

For two years during the 1990s, the Newport-Mesa school board borrowed $47 million annually and put it into the Orange County Investment Pool as way of generating revenue.

The borrowing-money-to-make-money scheme collapsed when the investment pool went belly up in 1994 and the county filed for bankruptcy, leaving the school district in dire financial straits. In addition to the $47 million loan it needed to repay, the district had an additional $33 million of its own money in the high-risk pool.

Steve Marble, then managing editor of the Daily Pilot, thought the school trustees — who had ignored warnings about the danger of the investment pool — weren't busting their tails to make sure the district got its money back.

Instead, Marble wrote in a column — and I'm quoting this from memory, so it may be a little off — saying the school board members acted like "they were cruising down Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible with the top down."

I know that line got under the skin of the trustees because nearly two decades later, they still remind me of it when I bump into them. They say it was an unfair characterization.

Maybe, maybe not. But I do think it's fair to say the school board in the past month has hopped into that convertible again. At a time when it should be placing Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard on paid administrative leave, school trustees seem content to be enjoying a drive down PCH, the radio blasting Beach Boys tunes while the wind whips their hair.

Hubbard should have been put on leave back in early December when Los Angeles prosecutors charged him with two felonies for allegedly giving an illegal bonus of $20,000 to a subordinate. He also allegedly boosted her monthly gas allowance without authorization when he served as superintendent of the Beverly Hills Unified School District.

In his only statement since the charges were filed, Hubbard, who came to Newport-Mesa in 2006, told the Daily Pilot's Mike Reicher on the day the news broke that he was innocent and had no relationship with Karen Anne Christiansen — his facilities director in Beverly Hills, who is facing much more serious charges of misappropriating funds and conflicts of interest — outside of work.

"It's absolutely not true," Hubbard said. "It's an injustice. This is my career. It's just not right. I don't know how I could have anything to do with it."

The president of the Beverly Hills school board didn't buy Hubbard's innocence.

"The Beverly Hills Unified School District and its board are gratified by the decision … to file felony criminal charges against former BHUSD employee Karen Christiansen and former Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard," Brian David Goldberg said in a statement.

"The district terminated Ms. Christensen last year for flagrant conflicts. The board was also deeply dismayed by the conduct of Dr. Hubbard, who's been accused of providing benefits and entering into a consulting contract with Christiansen without disclosing these matters to the board or obtaining board approval."

But the Newport-Mesa school board stood behind Hubbard and allowed him to remain on the job.

Wouldn't it have been more prudent to put Hubbard on leave, if only as a precaution? The school board could have even issued a statement along these lines: "While we believe in Jeffrey Hubbard's innocence, we felt it right to put him on paid administrative leave while he fights these charges. Our hope is to have him back soon."

I've talked about this case with many people in the community. Everyone asks, "Was Hubbard romantically involved with this woman?" This question goes to motivation. In other words, why would a superintendent give what prosecutors describe as an unauthorized $20,000 bonus to an employee?

This is the reason why one of the first questions the Pilot's Reicher asked Hubbard was: Did you have a relationship with Christiansen outside of work?

Hubbard's denial seemed to be undercut this week by a series of e-mails between Christiansen and him that were obtained and published by the Orange County Register. The exchanges were sexually charged, containing phrases such as "I love you," and "I adore you" and playful double-entendres about erections, oral sex and orgasms.

They also showed the pair socialized after work, attending a Lakers game, the theater and going on dinner dates.

In one e-mail, Christiansen asked for time off because her mother had died. Hubbard replied, "Whatever."

Christiansen wrote back, "Nice sympathetic response!!!! I'm grieving for god sake."

The Register reported that Hubbard, who is single, apologized "repeatedly" by e-mail for his curt comment and that Christiansen got her $20,000 bonus that very day.

Now, for sure, there should be enough red flags here for the Newport-Mesa school board to put its superintendent on paid leave.

But at least judging from the two trustees — Martha Fluor and Karen Yelsey — quoted in Thursday's Pilot, there's still no reason for concern. Fluor said Hubbard and Christiansen are consenting adults and Hubbard is known for his affectionate, "witty" e-mails. Yelsey said the e-mails don't reveal anything relevant and, besides, "It's a Beverly Hills issue."

I don't know many people in the community who'd agree with Fluor and Yelsey on this issue.

You have a superintendent charged with two felonies from his previous job. You have his former school board pleased that he's being prosecuted. You have e-mails that suggest Hubbard wasn't telling the truth when he said he had no involvement with Christiansen outside of work (and if there wasn't a romance, then he sent wildly inappropriate e-mails to a subordinate). And, according to the Register, you have the odd timing of the insulting e-mail and the same-day $20,000 bonus.

Katina Foley, the newly elected Newport-Mesa school board member, said Thursday that she requested a closed session meeting to discuss the Hubbard-Christensen e-mails, some of which were sent on Hubbard's Newport-Mesa account.

But board President Walt Davenport declined to schedule a meeting, claiming that only he or the majority of the board during open session could put such a session on the agenda (that can't be legal, can it?), and he has "not had any other indication of interest in this [so] I am choosing not to call for it at this time."

Davenport continues to cruise down PCH.

I think everyone in Newport-Mesa wishes Hubbard will be quickly cleared of the charges leveled against him. I do. He's been a popular superintendent here and has done a fine job.

But sometimes you have to stop wishing and start dealing with the crummy dish of reality served up to you.

Or, to paraphrase my friend Steve Marble, the Sunday drive down PCH should be over. It's time to put Hubbard on leave.

WILLIAM LOBDELL — a former editor of the Daily Pilot and Los Angeles Times journalist — is a Costa Mesa resident who runs a boutique public relations firm. The column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is williamlobdell@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°