Oversight Mistakes Were Avoidable, but Work Authorization Investigation Was Necessary, Report Finds

The Pomona College Board of Trustees made some mistakes related to communication and oversight of the investigation that led to the firing of 17 staff members last year, but the comprehensive audit of work authorization documents for all Pomona employees was necessary, according to a report by a subcommittee of trustees.

The board voted Saturday to accept the subcommittee’s report. Pomona students, professors and staff received access to an online version of the report Monday. 

One day before the board accepted the report, the board’s Audit Committee adopted a new set of policies for handling complaints. Audit Committee Chair Terrance Hodel PO ’64 said that the new policies were necessary because there was no preexisting procedure for responding to complaints like the one that the board received last year, which accused the Pomona administration of having illegal hiring practices.

According to the report, the complaint stated that Vice President and Treasurer Karen Sisson had told the complainant in August 2010 that the Pomona administration, both before and during the tenure of President David Oxtoby, did not have a legally sufficient practice of checking work authorization documents of new employees. Sisson later “denied making the specific statements attributed to her in the Complaint,” the report states.

In an e-mail to TSL, Sisson wrote that she remembered the conversation but did not believe she had said anything that might implicate the administration in illegal hiring practices.

“My recollection is that the conversation began with comments about the 2010 Commencement Speaker, Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano and President Oxtoby’s speech in support of the Dream Act,” she wrote.

The report states that Board Chair Paul Efron PO ’76 “discussed the appropriateness of investigating the Complaint’s allegations with three Board members who concurred with Efron that the allegations were specific and serious and should be investigated.”

Efron decided not to supervise the investigation personally because he “was having significant disagreements” with Oxtoby, who had been accused of breaking the law, the report states. Oxtoby also avoided a conflict of interest by deciding not to play any role in overseeing the investigation, according to the report.

Efron and Oxtoby both declined to comment on the nature of their disagreements, but both said that the disagreements were not related to the work authorization issue raised in the complaint.  

Efron initially put the then-chair of the Audit Committee in charge of responding to the complaint, but after the committee chair “mistakenly summarized the contents of the Complaint for Sisson, who had been referred to in the Complainant’s letter,” Efron asked the Audit Committee vice chair to take over the investigation, the report states. The vice chair, following Efron’s instruction to hire attorneys, asked the law firm Sidley Austin to review Pomona’s hiring practices.

According to the report, Sidley Austin initiated a full audit of work authorization documents for all Pomona employees, “even though there is no documentation of such a decision actually being made” by the Board of Trustees. 

“The College and the representative of the Board initially believed that this would be a process audit (not involving a review of documents underlying the I-9s),” but the law firm believed that it was necessary to examine every document involved in proving every employee’s eligibility to work in the United States, the report states.

The subcommittee that produced the report concluded that “the ultimate decision to conduct the full I-9 investigation was a sound one.”  However, the subcommittee also wrote that the board “should put in place a mechanism” to make sure that lawyers retained by Pomona know what they have been hired to do.

After hiring Sidley Austin, the Audit Committee vice chair resigned from the board without transferring responsibility for the investigation.

“As a result of the lack of a hand off between the outgoing chair of Audit and the incoming chair, there was, effectively, no direct Board supervision of the investigation during the interval between July 1 and mid-August, although a few members of the Board, as specified in the report, were aware of the initial complaint,” wrote Margaret Lodise PO ’85, who chaired the subcommittee, in an e-mail to TSL.

Efron wrote in an e-mail to TSL that he did not correspond with other board members or with Sidley Austin about the investigation during this period.  

“In light of the lack of communication between the departing Audit Vice Chair and the incoming Chair, there was a period of time in which there was no Trustee supervision of the investigation and no Trustee conversations with Sidley,”  he wrote. “As indicated in the report, having distanced myself from the investigation, I did not step in to ensure that proper communication took place between these individuals.”

The report recommends that the board “should review its policies concerning the hand off of matters from past committee chairs to new committee chairs.”

Hodel became the chair of the Audit Committee on July 1, 2011.  Yet, until he received some initial findings from Sidley Austin in mid-August, Hodel “was not aware of the Complaint or even that an investigation was being conducted by Sidley.”

Hodel said that before he became the Audit Committee chair, Efron had told him that a complaint had been made, but he did not learn the details of the complaint and the investigation until August.

“I was Chairman of the Trusteeship Committee, which appoints chairs of various committees, and he was talking to me about some concerns he had about the former chairman of the Audit Committee, so that’s how I knew that something was going on,” Hodel said.

Efron wrote that he remembered the conversation, but not in detail.

“I don’t think the complaint was the focus of our conversation,” he wrote.

The complaint and investigation have been the focus of many conversations at Pomona since late 2011, when the Pomona administration asked for updated work authorization documents from employees whose files had been deemed deficient. Some students, professors and staff members have criticized Pomona’s trustees and administrators for their response to the complaint. 

Oxtoby, who spoke at Commencement about the impact of the investigation on the families of the 17 workers who lost their jobs, wrote in an e-mail to TSL that there was little he could have done to change the outcome.

“I was presented in September with the results of the investigation, and the necessity of obeying the law did not allow a great deal of flexibility,” Oxtoby wrote. “I do think that we could have done a better job about communicating the issues, and I wish there had been more opportunity for open campus dialog and discussion.”

He added, “As far as the Board goes, I think the report emphasizes (and I agree) that a somewhat larger number of Trustees should have been brought into the decision process.  That will be achieved through the new complaint process approved by the Board.”

The new complaint procedure states that the whole Audit Committee, as well as the board chair, should be informed if there is a future allegation of criminal behavior by the college president. 

The procedure also requires that in any case where “outside experts” are needed, the investigation “will be governed by a contract with the expert in which the nature and scope of the investigation will be clearly defined and a budget will be established.” 

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