CONCORD -- Just as the Mt. Diablo school board appears poised to either fire or discipline its top lawyer, an investigation by this newspaper has found that he recommended approving nearly $100,000 in school district contracts for his girlfriend's translation services firm without publicly disclosing their relationship.
Marisol Padilla, who owns Advanced Interpreting Services, received her first $20,000 contract with the district in July 2010, and was awarded contracts worth a total of $94,000 in August 2011 and January 2012 based on recommendations and approvals from General Counsel Greg Rolen and others.
But Rolen did not publicly disclose that he and Padilla were romantically involved during that time period, despite his admission in court documents filed in his divorce from then-wife Diane Beall Rolen. In those documents, Rolen referred to Padilla as his girlfriend as far back as Sept. 28, 2010.
He married Padilla on Aug. 10, 2012. By that time, Padilla's firm, AIS, had received more than $200,000 in translation services contracts without any competitive bidding and replaced the district's previous longtime translation service provider, California Translation International, or CTI.
Rolen did not disclose a conflict of interest until Aug. 27, 2012, when he announced that he had established an "ethical wall" between his office and "the contractor" due to a recent change in his marital status. The board approved another $69,999 contract with Padilla's firm after Rolen's disclosure.
Rolen declined to comment for this story, and Padilla did not respond to repeated phone calls and an emails seeking comment.
The board met behind closed doors last week to consider discipline, dismissal or release of two employees, believed to be Rolen and Superintendent Steven Lawrence.
The district has not officially said why Rolen might be under fire, but school board President Cheryl Hansen has made no secret of her discontent. At two recent board meetings she said a general counsel is supposed to keep the district out of trouble, not generate it. She also referred to district "scandals" on Rolen's watch but did not say whether his relationship to Padilla was one of her concerns. In a later phone interview, she said his failure to recuse himself from Padilla's contracts sooner showed poor judgment.
"I don't know when the relationship started," Hansen said. "But, any employee who is involved in a personal relationship with a contractor should not be involved in promoting those contracts or in making decisions about those contracts."
Although government ethics experts said Rolen's failure to disclose his relationship sooner does not appear to have violated any laws, it raises public perception concerns.
"What the public might perceive, though, is that this firm got the contract because of favoritism due to the relationship between staff and somebody in the firm," said Joanne Speers, executive director of the nonprofit Institute for Local Government. "We encourage our local public officials to think about public perception because a perception that the district used something other than a fair merit process can be very damaging to the public trust in how the district makes decisions."
Carmen Terrones, a district clerical worker and union representative who typed up the early contracts, said she raised red flags about the relationship but was told to back off.
When asked recently when he became aware of Rolen's relationship to Padilla and if he thought it was a conflict for Rolen to recommend contracts for her company, Lawrence responded in an email: "I don't keep track of co-workers' dating life." Lawrence wrote in the email that the recommendations came from the departments using the translation services, and he did not further address the fact that Rolen's name was included on two staff reports under "approvals."
In November 2012, staff presented trustees with side-by-side comparisons of four translation vendors in response to its request¿ for proposal, revealing that Padilla's company charged more than the others. In a split 3-2 vote, trustees excluded AIS from future contracts, but then reversed themselves by agreeing to allow Padilla to renegotiate future terms at rates comparable to other translation companies. The companies provide translators to interpret for non-English-speaking parents in meetings, to help assess limited English-speaking students and translate written materials.
When Trustee Cheryl Hansen asked why the district had switched providers in 2010, Administrator Jeanne Duarte-Armas said she had been told there was an "incident" that prompted the change, but said she didn't know the details, since she didn't work in the district at the time.
Maria van Generen-Mercado, who operates CTI, said she knew of no incident that triggered the switch. Padilla, she said, worked 14 years as a secretary in her firm before forming AIS and obtaining the district's contract.
Currently, the district is in talks with both CTI and AIS to bring new contracts to the board, said Chief Financial Officer Bryan Richards. In the meantime, the district has continued paying Padilla's company the higher prices approved in August.
This newspaper also found that Rolen's secretary filed proof of service documents in his divorce and/or child custody cases at least four times and used the district's fax machine at least once to file the documents.
Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, agreed with Speers that Rolen's failure to disclose his relationship sooner could contribute to a loss of trust in the district.¿ In addition, she said the general counsel's use of his secretary and district fax to file divorce papers raised red flags.
"That's a problem," she said. "There is a strict prohibition of using public materials, fax, phones, desk and public employees. Talk about a firewall -- there should be none of that business being done on the public's dime. There's just no ifs, ands or buts. You take a day off or hire a process server ... Drawing your employees into your personal matters is never a good idea, no matter what business you're in. But when you're in the public's business, it's particularly harmful because you are potentially asking your employees do something they shouldn't do, but they don't feel that they have the ability to say no or blow the whistle."
In the past few months, Hansen and recently elected board Vice President Barbara Oaks have expressed an interest in finding "new leadership" in the general counsel and superintendent's positions because of low employee morale and a lack of trust in the district.
Meanwhile, Padilla's current $69,000 contract expires June 30, but the money is running out before then.
Richards said district officials are working on new contracts for AIS and CTI. The two firms would likely split the work that has been done by Padilla's firm for more than two years.
Theresa Harrington covers education. Reach her at 925-945-4764. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa.
July 1, 2010: The district enters into $20,000 contract with Marisol Padilla's company, Advanced Interpreting Services, or AIS, for 2010-11.
Aug. 18, 2010: Greg Rolen is in a relationship with a "new girlfriend," according to divorce court documents filed in September by Rolen's estranged wife, Diane Rolen.
Sept. 28, 2010: Greg Rolen refers to a text from Diane Rolen that names his girlfriend "Marisol," according to court documents.
Dec. 10, 2010: Greg Rolen's secretary files proof of service document in his divorce case using district's business address.
Dec. 14, 2010: AIS contract is increased by $55,000 to cover remainder of school year.
Jan. 3, 2011: Rolen's secretary files proof of service in his divorce case.
Jan. 27, 2011: Rolen's secretary files proof of service in his divorce case using district's business address.
Feb. 16, 2011: Rolen's secretary files proof of service in his divorce case using district's fax machine and business address.
May 24, 2011: AIS contract is increased an additional $17,000 to end of school year.
Aug. 9, 2011: Rolen and others approve $83,990 AIS contract recommendation to board for 2011-12 school year.
Sept. 28, 2011: Rolen's divorce is final.
Jan. 9, 2012: Rolen and others approve $10,000 AIS contract recommendation to board for interpreting parent-teacher conferences.
June 4, 2012: AIS contract is increased an additional $16,000 through end of school year.
Aug. 10, 2012: Rolen marries Padilla.
Aug. 27, 2012: Rolen removes himself from boardroom, saying he has established an "ethical wall" between his office and the AIS contractor because of a change in his marital status.
Sources: Mt. Diablo school district, Contra Costa Superior Court.