Now that his offices are in downtown Willows, not lonely Artois, Tim Crews—editor, publisher and curmudgeon-in-chief at the Sacramento Valley Mirror—is having a field day. Instead of driving 20 miles to dig through Glenn County’s public records, Crews walks only a few blocks.
He’s been doing a lot of digging lately. In just the past two months, he’s broken several juicy stories. But the one that’s really got the county buzzing is his running exposé—six articles so far—of what he calls “corruption, self-dealing, misuse of public funds and ethical violations” in the Glenn County Office of Education.
At the heart of the story is the GCOE’s current superintendent, Dr. Joni Samples, who is retiring when her term ends this year, and a woman running to succeed her, Coleen Parker. Parker works for the GCOE under Samples as its director of adult education and literacy programs and director of the Regional Occupational Program. Her opponent on the Nov. 7 ballot is Arturo Barrera.
Parker is the daughter-in-law of a local builder named Bob Parker. He, in turn, is planning to wed Samples, which means that Coleen Parker is Joni Samples’ future stepdaughter-in-law as well as heir-designate.
Crews’ interest in the GCOE began two years ago, when the district purchased land in downtown Willows for new offices. It bothered him that a real estate agent named Tony Valente handled the transaction. Valente’s wife, Gloria, then was Samples’ executive assistant and also involved with her husband in the real estate company. It seemed like a conflict of interest to Crews.
("I chose Tony Valente because he was the best real estate person in the county,” Samples recently explained. “It didn’t even dawn on me that his wife worked in my office.")
Then, last year, when a building Bob Parker had constructed in Orland became available, Samples obtained a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan to purchase it for GCOE’s use. Coleen Parker, the Valley Mirror reported, was the “acceptance officer” responsible for determining whether the building complied with standards. The insider nature of these dealings also bothered Crews.
(Samples said she was not involved romantically with Bob Parker at the time and the deal was a money-saver for the county.)
A couple of months ago, Crews used the California Public Records Act to obtain thousands of pages of e-mails and other documents from the GCOE. One thing he found was that, contrary to county policy, both Samples and Parker had used the office e-mail system for campaign work on Parker’s behalf.
Coleen Parker readily fessed up: “Yes, I did the e-mails,” she said in a phone interview. “Is it appropriate? No. Is it dumb? Yes. Will it happen again? No.”
“I’m new at this process of running for office,” she explained, adding that most of the e-mails were from people outside the office asking merely how her campaign was going. She herself initiated only seven e-mails making campaign arrangements and soliciting advice or help—and never money, she said.
Parker denies being the acceptance officer on the Orland building deal, but Crews insists she and Samples both told him otherwise.
Crews also uncovered that Samples had hired a consultant—at $1,000 a day plus expenses, for a total of more than $10,000 since October 2005—to coach her and others in her administration in teambuilding, public speaking and communication skills. As part of that, Coleen Parker received personal training in public speaking valued at $1,000 that was billed to the district.
Parker later paid for the training out of her own pocket. “It was a billing mixup on the part of the person doing the training,” she said.
Yet, as Crews points out, the person who initiated the training sessions wasn’t Parker, it was Samples. As far back as Sept. 1, 2005, she e-mailed the consultant, Sue Rueb, “I want [Coleen] to be prepared to do all the political speaking she’ll need to do in the next few months while running for office.”
Samples acknowledges that the e-mail was a mistake. “That’s the one I’d take back if I could,” she said. Otherwise, though, Rueb’s work was strictly to benefit the management team at GCOE, she said.
Crews also dinged Samples for a couple of taxpayer-financed trips she took, one to Puerto Vallarta last summer to study Spanish, even though she had only six months left in her term, and the other just recently to England to present a paper at Oxford University.
Here’s a bit from the blog Samples writes for the Chico Enterprise-Record: “I have a fabulous opportunity. I have been invited to come to Oxford to present a paper. What a rare treat. Oxford. Wow.”
However, as Crews writes, “Oxford Round Table, Inc., officials are plain that they ‘are in no way affiliated with Oxford University,’ even though they conduct their event there.” In fact, they’re a for-profit outfit out of LeGrange, Ky., that calls itself a think tank and rents facilities at Oxford.
Both trips were valuable, Samples responded. The Puerto Vallarta trip wasn’t to learn Spanish, but rather to learn how Spanish is taught to teachers so she can set up a similar program in Glenn County. And the people putting on the Oxford trip were definitely from Oxford University—that’s how they identified themselves. “It was an honor to be invited,” she said.
While Samples was flying back to Willows from England, Crews was sifting through GCOE credit card receipts he’d obtained via the public-records act. He discovered that a dozen GCOE senior employees had racked up $243,000 in credit card charges in the past year.
Crews is still digging. Most recently he requested an additional 80,000 pages of documents. The GCOE is refusing to release the information immediately, however, saying that it has to sort through it to make sure no confidential information is in it.
Is Crews making mountains out of molehills, as has been charged? That remains to be seen. The county grand jury is looking into Crews’ charges. So, reportedly, is the district attorney.
For Crews’ part, what makes him furious is that public officials like Samples are able to spend tax dollars so freely, with so little oversight, while the kids they serve lack tutoring services and live in the second-poorest county in the state. “I want some reform,” he says. “I want people to quit BSing the public about how much money is being spent.”