The president of Chevron Energy Solutions helped friends of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District superintendent gain a discount on a June golf round at a Lake Tahoe-area course.
The company, a San Francisco subsidiary of the San Ramon-based oil giant, is one of several firms likely to bid on the district's massive solar project, which could cost as much as $68 million.
The golf trip came as the superintendent, Steven Lawrence, and other district leaders prepared to award Chevron a no-bid contract on the bond-financed solar project. Mt. Diablo backed off those plans in July and announced a bid process amid scrutiny of the deal by the Bay Area News Group.
Other bidders and ethics experts said they worry the district's close ties to Chevron could influence Mt. Diablo's decision on the contract, which will be funded by the $348 million Measure C, which passed June 8. The bidding period is scheduled to close Sept. 2.
"If they have such a tight relationship with the superintendent, they're probably privy to more information than we are," said Nate Tyler, owner of Rodeo-based Net Electric, which is considering whether to bid. "It definitely raises questions in my mind."
Lawrence said he did nothing wrong by inviting Jim Davis, the Chevron executive, to join the superintendent's friends at an Incline Village golf course the weekend of June 25. Davis lives in the Incline Village area, which provides discounts for residents and those golfing with them.
The total discount for three of Lawrence's friends in Davis' foursome, which did not include Lawrence, would have been about $200, according to Bill Horn, the golf course's general manager. The course costs $179 per person without a resident, and $115 with one, Horn said.
Lawrence said he was playing with another foursome at the same time.
"It was just a golf trip with a bunch of guys," said Lawrence, who added that he has been taking the annual trip with about a dozen friends for more than a decade. "The reason I reached out to (Davis) was to get the reduction in green fees for my friends."
Although the outing occurred before the district requested bids on the bond project, it raises at least the appearance of a conflict of interest now that Chevron is involved in the bidding process, said Michael Salerno, a professor at Hastings College of the Law and former executive director of the state Fair Political Practices Commission. Lawrence should not be involved in the decision-making process as long as Chevron is a bidder, he said.
"Ethically, it's a slam dunk," Salerno said. "You shouldn't be recreating with companies from whom you're seeking a bid."
Davis and another Chevron executive had previously met Lawrence for drinks at Oliveto, a high-end Oakland restaurant. The company paid for the drinks, said a Chevron spokeswoman, Juliet Don.
In terms of the golf, Don said each golfer paid his own fee and the outing was in line with company policy.
Mt. Diablo board members declined to say whether they would ask Lawrence to recuse himself from the contract decision, but trustee Gary Eberhart said he did not see a problem.
"The decisions the board is going to make are not going to be affected by a golf game at Tahoe," said Eberhart, who had been involved with the Chevron negotiations before the district turned to bidding. "Do you really think a few hundred dollars is going to affect our decision on a $68 million project?"
Board President Paul Strange declined to speak with a reporter, saying he would only answer questions via e-mail.
Trustee Linda Mayo said she did not feel comfortable discussing the issue without knowing more details, but added that the bid process will be transparent and taxpayers will be able to make their own decisions whether Lawrence's involvement is appropriate.
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 925-943-8246.