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College District Board Decides to Buy Out Westin's Contract

Investigation into the chancellor's spending practices turns up no wrongdoing. Taxpayer advocates and faculty union still unsatisfied.

October 23, 2002|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

The Ventura County Community College District will buy out Chancellor Philip Westin's contract -- rather than fire him -- because an internal investigation of his questionable spending practices found no wrongdoing, college board President Norman Nagel announced late Tuesday.

The settlement, which pays Westin his full $203,000 annual salary until next July and a reduced amount for four months after that, would end Westin's six-year tenure and gives him the right to seek employment elsewhere.

Westin, 56, has resigned as part of the deal.

"We conducted a confidential investigation into the allegations, and the investigation concluded that the claims have no merit at all," Nagel said. "The board wishes him well on his future professional endeavors."

Trustees also granted Westin the title of chancellor emeritus, an honorary designation he had requested, but he has no official duties.

Even in settlement, however, the trustees were divided. Nagel, Al Jacobs and Bob Gonzales voted for it, while the two trustees on the Nov. 5 ballot for reelection -- Art Hernandez and John Tallman -- voted against it without comment.

The internal investigation by a Los Angeles law firm found Westin broke no laws nor district rules when he spent $119,000 over four years on car repairs, computer equipment and expensive meals. But critics of the college board said the buyout is too little, too late.

"It's hard to know if this was the best decision because we've been cut out from the process," said community activist David Maron. "I think it's clear the investigation was very limited in its scope and did not fit the spirit of what we were promised back in July. The buyout reflects what happens when a public board is concerned only with its own self-interest, as opposed to the community's."

Larry Miller, president of the Ventura County Federation of College Teachers, which has had its own legal disputes with Westin, said: "I don't like it at all. I think he should go to jail."

The decision brings to an apparent end an ongoing financial scandal that has rocked the 35,000-student district since last spring and inspired a bevy of candidates seeking to reform the five-member board. Three board seats are being contested in the election.

Westin first came under fire in March, when the Camarillo law firm of Wood & Bender presented trustees with a report detailing his expenditures from 1997 to 2001.

Trustees initially sought Westin's resignation but dropped the effort after an auditor hired by the district cleared him of criminal violations.

In May, trustees voted to renew his contract through 2006 and raised his salary by 16%, saying he had done a good job and was instrumental in securing voter approval of a $365-million construction bond.

But taxpayers and faculty union members were livid when they learned of Westin's spending and his new contract. As public anger rose, two county residents filed a lawsuit against the district on behalf of county taxpayers.

In the Ventura County Superior Court suit, residents Gerard Kapuscik and Gerald Levin outlined a number of allegations against Westin, Deputy Chancellor Mike Gregoryk and some board members, including claims they spent public money on rental cars and tickets to exclusive golf tournaments and misspent federal grant money.

Maron and political activist Hank Lacayo started an e-mail campaign in July aimed at ousting Westin, and a conservative Republican group launched a recall effort against Jacobs, whose term expires in 2004.

In response, trustees placed Westin on paid administrative leave in July and said they would launch their own investigation. They hired the firm of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore to conduct the probe, but revealed little about its progress until Tuesday evening's meeting.

Critics said the latest investigation was a cynical attempt to quell public anger. They noted that a majority of trustees stood by Westin until it was no longer politically feasible to continue.

"There's never been a sense of contrition from the board about its own culpability in extending his contract when it was unnecessary and looking the other way on his expenses," said Maron, who chairs a county advisory committee on spending millions of dollars in tobacco settlement money. "They've never apologized for the way they've managed the board over the last six months."

Miller, the faculty union president, said the buyout will not undo the damage caused by Westin's autocratic management style. Tension between the administration and the faculty union has contributed to a rise in district legal fees, which climbed to nearly $1 million in fiscal 2001-02.

"Forget the money," Miller said. "The spending is minor compared to what he's done to people's lives. The way Westin and [district Counsel Jack] Lipton have conspired to attack the faculty is criminal."

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