RICHMOND -- The West Contra Costa school district expects to spend $160,000 to help the board president respond to a Securities and Exchange Commission subpoena related to the district's bond construction financing.
Trustees on Wednesday approved a contract for up to $150,000 to pay lawyers -- including Board President Charles Ramsey's brother, Ismail Ramsey -- to represent Charles Ramsey in the SEC matter, in which the district, Contra Costa County Treasurer, members of the district's bond finance team and consultants and advisers were also subpoenaed. In addition, trustees approved a $10,000 contract for F1 Discovery to pay for "data collection, processing and review in connection with (Ramsey's) subpoena."
The contracts were approved on the district's consent calendar without discussion and were not provided to the public in the agenda packet. Ramsey recused himself from the entire consent calendar vote, saying he was involved with one of the 11 items listed, but he did not disclose which item or why.
Some district residents are upset about the district's lack of transparency regarding the contract approvals, along with the large amount of money involved.
A few also questioned whether the payment to Ramsey's brother could be considered a conflict of interest.
"That's a lot of money from our education funds for 'representing' a school board member that has been asked to just furnish documentation," said resident Linda Ruiz-Lozito. "It makes it appear like there is something much more serious he is worried about. As a parent concerned about education, I'd rather that money go to teachers for classroom budgets. Every teacher could have spent this to buy a couple cases of copy paper and extras they need for classes."
Ramsey declined to discuss the contracts.
"I didn't participate in that (vote), so I don't have any comment on that," he said Thursday. "I recused myself."
Two conflict of interest experts had varying opinions related to a contract with a board president's brother. Although both agreed there was no legal conflict of interest, one said he would advise against entering into such a contract.
"That seems problematic just because of attorney's allegiances," said Michael Martello, senior counsel for the Institute of Local Governments. "There seems to be almost a natural potential for problems there. The lawyer hired may be the most competent and ethical person on the planet, but it could put you in a position where there could be personal strains on the relationships -- with your brother -- or your obligations for full disclosure and candor with the board. Why not pick another lawyer? Public agencies are all about transparency. You avoid the appearance of conflict every chance you can, and that seems to be driving head-on into it."
But Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, said he did not see a problem with the contract.
"Clearly it's not a legal conflict because it's his brother, not him, and there are no requirements that you have to disqualify yourself when it comes to your brother," he said. "Of course he did disqualify himself. Good for him. That was important. That was the ethical thing to do. Beyond that, there's no requirement that the district can't do this."
Trustee Todd Groves defended the board's decision, saying Ismail Ramsey's firm was well qualified for the job.
"His brother's law firm is quite experienced in this area," Groves said. "He was a former payroll prosecutor, and his firm understands the intricacies of inquiries of this nature. There were a series of firms that were shortlisted and the board chose that firm."
Details about the contracts approved by the West Contra Costa school board to pay legal and other fees related to the board president's SEC subpoena response are available by visiting www.wccusd.net. Click on Board of Education, then Agendas, Packets and Minutes. See item C.2 in the Sept. 3, 2014, Agenda Packet.