Following last week's dramatic governing board meeting, in which Bryan Reece was reinstated as active chancellor of the Contra Costa Community College District after a brief administrative leave, questions remain about the ongoing investigation into undisclosed "personnel matters" involving the first-year chancellor.
Details of the underlying investigation remain confidential, with district officials declining to comment, citing governing board policy. Reece has not addressed specifics of the investigation in public comments thus far, and he did not respond to requests for comment this week.
However, an email complaint that was circulated to district leaders and others several months prior to Reece's administrative leave sheds some light on controversy around Reece earlier this year.
The email, a copy of which has been obtained by DanvilleSanRamon.com, accused Reece of ethical and potential legal violations regarding a $10 million contract originally awarded by the district to VisionPoint Marketing for work aimed at increasing enrollment.
With the subject line "Bid Rigging at Contra Costa Community College District," the email was sent to competing vendors, district governing board members, the county DA's office and student news outlets on April 29 from a sender whose identity and connection to the district is still unclear.
The emailer accused Reece of manipulating the public bidding process for VisionPoint and $10 million contract; VisionPoint was the same firm that the district had paid $25,000 earlier in the year for assistance on the request for proposals (RFP) that solicited bids for the contract.
The email complaint alleged unethical behavior on the chancellor's part in creating the troubled bidding process -- which would ultimately be revisited by the board, who rescinded the eight-figure contract from VisionPoint and went with another firm under different terms.
"The issue that resulted in the District rescinding the award of the contract to VisionPoint had to do with the firm being asked to assist us in writing the RFP, then we allowed them to bid on the RFP, and eventually was selected which led to the claim they had an unfair advantage," said Tim Leong, the district's public information officer, in an email to DanvilleSanRamon this week.
"We are currently looking at our business procedures to ensure we capture this experience so it doesn't happen again," Leong added.
Leong declined to comment on whether the current investigation involving Reece has any connection to allegations of collusion in the VisionPoint RFP process from spring.
Though it's not clear based on publicly available information whether those allegations were the catalyst for the ongoing probe of Reece, that would not be surprising to some on the ground in the district, according to Neal Skapura, Classified Union Local 1 president and English instructor at Diablo Valley College.
"Why are (the governing board) hiding behind the idea that the investigation needs to keep going? It's pretty clear he's under investigation for bid-tailoring," Skapura said.
Reece, who started as CCCCD chancellor on Nov. 1, days before the general election when two board members would be voted out, was placed on paid administrative leave on Sept. 14 by the current board in a 3-0 vote (with one absence and one abstention), citing an undisclosed personnel investigation.
Just over two weeks later, a new board majority decided 3-2 to reinstate Reece as chancellor effective immediately upon the vote that occurred shortly after midnight the morning of Oct. 1. The vote came after more than an hour of passionate public comments primarily voicing support for Reece and then more than six hours of discussion in a closed session.
Specifics of the investigation remain unknown, but district leaders did confirm the probe remained ongoing after the governing board's vote to reinstate Reece. Although Reece has not responded to requests for comment on the investigation, he did discuss what he saw as issues with the district's investigatory process during his public comment on Sept. 30 prior to the governing board's vote to let him return to work while the investigation continued.
An RFP award reversal
The CCCCD Governing Board initially approved an agreement with VisionPoint for the firm's assistance with the RFP process for $25,000 at the trustees' Feb. 25 meeting. VisionPoint, at staff's recommendation, was then awarded the contract for marketing services aimed at increasing enrollment with its $10 million bid at the board's April 28 meeting -- one day before the April 29 complaint email was sent to competing vendors, district officials and student media.
At a later board meeting on May 26, Governing Board President Andy Li referred to an email the district received pointing to problems with the bidding process for the marketing contract. It is not clear whether Li was referencing the April 29 "bid-rigging" email in his public comments in May.
"Following the board's approval to enter contract negotiations, we received an email suggesting our bidding process may have been flawed," Li said in a board report from the district's May 26 meeting. "The email listed several issues to consider. We immediately had two attorneys and our executive vice chancellor evaluate the concerns. The attorneys concluded that there is one claim in the email that may be accurate and to make sure we avoid any risk to the district, we are reviewing last."
The trustees voted unanimously to rescind the contract with VisionPoint at their May 26 meeting. They heard a presentation from Interact Communications, and awarded them a contract for marketing services on Aug. 11.
The contract originally awarded to VisionPoint was for $10 million, for services to be provided through 2024.
When contacted this week for comment on the bidding process and what particular enrollment marketing needs VisionPoint were tasked to address, a spokesperson for the company said that was not information they could share.
"As a matter of principle, we don't disclose insights from our analysis of clients' or potential clients' strategic situations," Dana Cruikshank said in an email on behalf of VisionPoint. "Generally speaking, the need to increase enrollment is common among many institutions of higher education."
The governing board voted to award a contract for marketing services instead to Interact Communications, at a rate of just over $2 million for the first year of services provided.
"We sought input from our legal counsel to weigh our options and recommendations," Leong said of the rescinding process. "That input was presented to the Governing Board who ultimately agreed it was in the district's best interest to rescind the VisionPoint contract. This topic also received media coverage and community input, and I'm sure all of it was considered in the Governing Board's decision."
The April 29 complaint email contended that VisionPoint was awarded a $150,000 contract for marketing services at Norco College in Riverside County -- shortly after Reece was put on leave and ultimately terminated as president there in June 2019, but he was still in leadership when the contract review and selection process was occurring, according to the email.
In addition to alleging Reece could have been colluding with VisionPoint, the email complaint to CCCCD claimed the RFP process "was rigged, manipulated and the vendor was pre-selected by Chancellor Bryan Reece," citing violations of the district's business procedures on multiple counts calling the chancellor's actions "not just unethical, but potentially illegal."
The email also called the governing board members as "complicit" for their initial vote to award the $10 million contract to VisionPoint. The sender urged the district to investigate a potential motivation for the alleged bid-rigging.
The complaint email came ahead of the board's decision to rescind the contract from VisionPoint on May 26 -- which decision came at the advice of the district's legal counsel, according to Leong.
Leong said that he wasn't aware of any additional actions taken by the governing board in response to input from the district's legal counsel on the RFP process in question.
Skapura said that in his view, unethical dealings with VisionPoint would be in character for what he described as Reece's "quid pro quo" style of thinking.
"I believe his payoff would be that the marketing company would help him eventually with his book when he becomes a consultant after this place," Skapura said. "If the report is released, I strongly suspect that would be sustained there."
"This is how he works," Skapura said. "'Do the ends justify the means'? Totally ignoring all protocol, all board policies."
Skapura said it was no surprise that Reece would be able to rally supporters at the Sept. 30 meeting ahead of his reinstatement as chancellor. He suggested Reece was happy to provide groups such as the NAACP branches and United Faculty with support in the name of their goals, so long as they were willing to return the favor.
"This kind of stuff is really just like street theater," Skapura said. "It's just a show, and it's a distraction from why we were actually there. And what we were actually there to look at was that he is under investigation for bid tailoring, and the board put him on administrative leave."
Despite having insight into the situation as a union official, Skapura emphasized that one of the most frustrating aspects of it was a lack of transparency from the board, and said he wished conversations about Reece were based more heavily on documented facts, rather than speculation.
Leong acknowledged, too, that speculation and rumors have been rampant in the district amid the Reece investigation.
"There are a lot of rumors flying today about the recent decision to place him on paid admin leave, then bring him back," Leong said. "Since we can't comment on personnel matters, the void of official information gets filled with a lot of speculation and rumors."