Prior to announcing a resignation agreement with the district's chancellor two months ago, trustees and cabinet members at the Contra Costa Community College District received the findings of an investigation report that supported several concerns officials and employees had been raising with Bryan Reece's actions during his short tenure at the helm.
The investigation into allegations against Reece, conducted by the office of Scott Kivel, was summarized in a report by the district's legal counsel Jeff Sloan, and made public this week.
"On behalf of the District and the Governing Board, we deeply regret the disruption Dr. Reece's actions have caused and hope this report is the final chapter of what we know was a tumultuous 15 months," now-Interim Chancellor Mojdeh Mehdizadeh said in an email to district employees on Monday, announcing the availability of investigation findings.
"I will continue to work with the Governing Board to look at additional ways to prevent this type of institutional abuse in the future and want to commend the numerous employees who voiced their deep concerns which precipitated this investigation," she added.
Investigators found evidence to back up allegations of improper conduct from Reece in his role in facilitating a situation in which the same companies assisting with a request for quote (RFQ) process were given an unfair advantage in bidding for the $10 million contract that would ultimately be on the line in the request for proposals (RFP) process, leading to the award of the unusually high contract to VisionPoint – a deal that was later rescinded by the Governing Board.
The report also concluded there was evidence to support allegations of a "quid pro quo" situation between the chancellor and the district's former legal counsel, which itself served to sustain accusations that Reece had sought to interfere in the district's investigations, including one into his own actions during the RFQ/RFP process.
Attempts to contact Reece, who resigned on Feb. 16 and received the remainder of his contract term's salary of more than $133,000 as well as health benefits, were unsuccessful this week.
At prior public meetings, Reece had denied allegations of wrongdoing during his time as chancellor.
Preliminary findings of the report were made available to district trustees ahead of their initial vote to place Reece on paid administrative leave on Sept. 14 and ahead of their vote for him to return to his duties amidst the ongoing investigation, at their Sept. 30 meeting.
A final version with a requested addendum was submitted on Feb. 19, according to the official timeline.
Controversy surrounding the now-former chancellor's actions began several months into his time in his position.
Reece began at CCCCD in November 2020 following a search by the district that was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the last-minute exit of other contenders for the chancellor position. Despite having been fired from Norco College in Riverside County for undisclosed reasons in 2019, Reece rose to be a finalist for the CCCCD as well as in the chancellor search by the neighboring Chabot-Las Positas Community College District earlier in 2020.
One of Reece's first tasks at Contra Costa was to help aid the district's declining enrollment with a marketing and communications plan aimed at contending with these specific challenges.
While the Kivel report emphasizes that the enrollment challenges facing the district were – and continue to be – significant, the investigation supported allegations that ultimately Reece's actions in the RFQ/RFP process, leading to the board's vote to rescind the contract, as well as other actions, only served to create more crises for the district in terms of its reputation.
The price-tag for the VisionPoint contract was deemed unusually high at $10 million, the highest ever awarded for a non-construction project in the college district.
Of further concern to investigators, as well as multiple district officials throughout the process, was that the maximum amount of funding budgeted for the enrollment marketing campaign was awarded upfront, rather than through a typical process in which companies would submit proposals including estimates of costs for their services, which would factor into the Governing Board's decision in who to award the contract to.
In their report, investigators acknowledge that the scope of the enrollment recovery campaign was both ambitious and challenging.
They also note that it had been Reece's first time working on an RFQ/RFP process. However, they conclude that none of those factors excuse ignoring district protocols and numerous concerns from officials, or failing to seek substantial legal advice on the process.
The Kivel investigation concludes that in addition to overriding district protocols and concerns from officials, Reece engaged in inappropriate exchanges with contractors who would go on to bid for the $10 million contract.
They point to emails between Reece and VisionPoint in which he sends chapters of his book and asks for feedback, as well as an exchange in which he jokes about going to work for VisionPoint – the company with whom the district would award the contract, before ultimately rescinding it a short time later.
The public was first informed about irregularities in the RFQ and RFP process when an anonymous email was circulated in April 2021 alleging bid-rigging on Reece's part and suggesting a prior relationship between Reece and VisionPoint.
The email pointed to a contract with VisionPoint that Norco College entered into, shortly after Reece's termination as president there, and suggested that a relationship between Reece and VisionPoint might be at play in the fraught RFQ/RFP process.
While a footnote in the investigation report notes that Reece's time at Norco was beyond the scope of this investigation, investigators found what they considered to be evidence of inappropriate and overly friendly behavior in exchanges with VisionPoint CEO Diane Kuehn.
Although Reece apparently told investigators that he was not familiar with VisionPoint, remarks to district officials and messages attached as an exhibit in the investigation report see Reece voicing his confidence in the enrollment recovery process by saying that he would work with companies he's familiar with to draft the RFQ, including VisionPoint.
In a rebuttal within the investigation report, Reece said that it was possible he'd met Kuehn while applying for a job on the East Coast and seeking information about enrollment and marketing in that area. However, he argued that meeting new people and making connections is part of both his character and role as an educational administrator.
"This world needs kind, generous, friendly people, and I will not stop trying to be one of those people," Reece said in his rebuttal. "We are lost when this behavior is characterized in pejorative terms and accepted as a charge in an official investigation."
"In his investigative interview, the Chancellor denied having previously worked with the three firms he admittedly invited to participate in drafting the RFQ," a summary of the investigation report said. "However, this claim appears to be contradicted by an April 29, 2021, email in which the Chancellor wrote that he encouraged three firms he worked with in the past to write the RFQ."
The report notes that it is difficult to accurately evaluate Reece's claim that he thought he may have met Kuehn at some point, given that Kuehn declined to be interviewed for the investigation, making it "unclear in what form, and to what degree, the Chancellor had a prior relationship with VisionPoint," according to the investigation report.
Nonetheless, investigators conclude that Reece problematically failed to reveal having any prior relationship with VisionPoint.
Quid pro quo?
The investigation report also supports allegations from attorney Monica Batanero of a "quid pro quo" offer and subsequent retaliation by Reece. An exhibit in the report includes a text message exchange between Batanero and Reece, upon Reece's discovery of the scope of the legal challenges he might be facing in the wake of the troubled RFQ/RFP process.
"The Investigator found that the Chancellor proposed that if Batanero used her influence with the Board to prevent authorization of an investigation of the Chancellor’s actions relative to the ERP, he would see to it that she could serve as the District’s General Counsel," the report said.
In the exchange, Reece asks Batanero if she'd be interested in an official appointment as the district's legal counsel, with Batanero saying she would be, according to the report.
In an interview with investigators, Batanero raised concerns about this being meant as a quid pro quo offer, when Reece asked her to dissuade the Governing Board from launching the investigation into bid tailoring allegations. When Batanero refused to do so, Reece subsequently withdrew the offer of the general counsel position.
"He was angry and he was complaining about the culture of investigations and how he's a target and he's gonna change that culture," Batanero told investigators. "And, that you know, I basically have the Board's ear. I'm gonna be in closed session."
Batanero said she told Reece that if the Governing Board was advised by the district's internal auditor that they should launch an investigation, she couldn't imagine the board being persuaded to vote against that move. At this point, she said Reece was more precise about what he wanted from her.
"And that's when he was like, but you're gonna be there," Batanero said. "You're gonna be in closed session with them. Like basically, you can convince them."
Despite Batanero's protests and ultimate rejection of Reece's request on legal grounds, she said he maintained an insistence that she was capable of stopping the investigation, which he said would be sufficient to damage his reputation. She noted that this upset Reece, despite her assurances that an investigation would be good for his reputation if it helped to clear his name amid swirling rumors in the district.
"... (I)t was so disproportionate, his reaction," Batanero said. "He was so angry, and he was throwing 'F' bombs, he was so angry."
Kivel's office concluded that it would be reasonable to infer that discussions of Batanero's continued work with the district, and potential role as general counsel, were terminated as a result of her "perceived role in the Board's authorization of the Kivel investigation."
In his rebuttal, Reece argued that Batanero's services were genuinely no longer needed, and said that he was concerned about her lack of availability for his questions and communications amid her move that summer, noting that she "seemed disengaged," and citing "significant concerns" about her role in maintaining what he saw as a culture of problematic investigations in the district.
"Ms. Batanero and Dr. Reece held numerous phone conversations about the District's investigation process and culture," the rebuttal to the investigation report from Reece and his legal team said. "She knew of the Board's goal and the Chancellor's board approved goal to change the internal investigation processes in a more humane and less litigious direction.
"The Chancellor and Ms. Batanero talked for several hours over multiple phone calls on this matter. She refused to offer any suggestions on how the district could move in the direction articulated by the Board, and instead insisted that the District continue to follow the same questionable process."
With the investigation findings, as well as interactions with Reece during the investigation process, Kivel's office concluded its report with concerns about Reece's overall character. Even though they don't pinpoint deliberately malicious behavior, they raise numerous concerns about inconsistencies with Reece's lack of transparency in the investigation process.
"At various points throughout his report, the Investigator noted concerns about the Chancellor’s credibility, noting at one point: '(T)he Chancellor’s veracity, and thus credibility, falls short of what should be expected of the District’s leader, when viewed in light of the contrary statements consistently proffered by numerous other interviewees,'" the report said.
Reece did not respond to a request for comment from DanvilleSanRamon.com. He maintained in the rebuttal to the investigation report and elsewhere that one of his primary responsibilities coming into the chancellor's office in 2020 was to contend with the district's "toxic culture of investigations" in addition to declining enrollment.
When Reece was initially put on leave by the board in September, numerous public commenters at the subsequent meeting in which he was reinstated, pointed to frustrations with ongoing turnover and instability in the district's cabinet, and concerns about a pattern of placing high-level district administrators on leave amid undisclosed investigations.
In the former suit, the district was required to release information that legal counsel had argued wasn't within the scope of the California Public Records Act, with the judge ruling otherwise for much of the information mentioned in the suit. In the latter suit, the district recently reached a settlement that paid out more than $1.5 million to Huff and Shipp combined.
In both filings, Gregory McCoy, legal counsel for Huff, Shipp and Nicholas, argued that Reece played a significant role in the withholding of information in the CPRA suit, suggesting that this was meant as a coverup for his own actions.
Much of the information that was initially withheld, leading to the filing of the CPRA suit, was regarding Reece’s alleged interference into an investigation regarding a faculty member who was suspected of paying students to take his classes. That investigation was ultimately terminated after concerns raised by the consultant firm Titan Group about Reece’s non-cooperation with their procedures, and whose services were ultimately terminated by Reece.
An earlier tort claim from Huff alleged that Reece “inserted himself into all human resources functions of the district" in order to "manipulate personnel complaints against the District by silencing any independent review." In particular, the tort claim from Huff points to concerns with Reece’s use of administrative determinations that made public some parts of investigative material in justifying them, without making the full records available.
Huff and Shipp both agreed to resign from the district at the end of this academic year as part of their settlement agreement.
With Reece also out, Mehdizadeh is left leading a depleted cabinet after herself being elevated from her executive vice chancellor position to interim chancellor.
Her interim contract was finalized in February, which sees her continuing in the position until 2024 unless a permanent chancellor is appointed before then.