Justice in SJSU 'Justice Studies' Department?

University finds no fiscal impropriety after department head admits using unauthorized checking account for personal use

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Faculty, staff and students say the SJSU investigation into a former department head does not go far enough after administrators found no indication of financial impropriety stemming from the personal use of an unauthorized university checking account. Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski reports in a story that aired on May 14, 2014. (Published Thursday, May 15, 2014)

    Faculty, staff members and students at San Jose State University are calling on administrators to conduct a deeper investigation into what happened after a department head admitted to using money from a campus bank account to buy personal items last year.

    They question whether justice was served inside the university’s Justice Studies department, where former department head Dr. Mark Correia made personal purchases using an unauthorized checking account, which was funded by student money.

    SJSU’s investigation concluded that the university found “no fiscal impropriety,” despite acknowledging Correia’s use of the checking account for personal expenses. That conclusion has angered Justice Studies associate professor, Sang Kil and former administrative support coordinator, Gilbert Villareal.

    “As a sole faculty member speaking out, it’s uncomfortable and I’m worried about my job,” Kil said. “If San Jose State University thinks that what happened in our department is done with, and justice was served—I openly disagree with them.”

    Villareal said the university should be embarrassed by the investigation because it looked like administrators were “trying to sweep things under the rug.”

    The probe started after Dean of the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, Charles Bullock contacted Correia regarding use of an unauthorized off-campus checking account.  Following an email and phone conversations, the Justice Studies department head admitted he made some personal purchases using the account. In a letter obtained by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, Correia wrote, “I am embarrassed to say there were some inadvertent personal charges, which I have reimbursed.”

    An official investigation by the SJSU finance department followed. It found that Correia had used nearly $7,000 for items such as plane tickets, parking tickets, wireless phone charges and an iPad. During its investigation, the university learned that the checking account was funded by student purchases of items such as department apparel, summer camp fees and convocation tickets.

    After Correia was questioned about the unauthorized bank account—and after he closed it, admitted to misusing the funds and returned the money—the university’s investigation found that “there was no indication of fiscal impropriety” and no deliberate fraud, theft or embezzlement.

    “The investigation seems to me a bit of a cover up because they declare no fiscal impropriety occurred,” Kil said. “It’s oxymoronic, it’s contrasting and it doesn’t make sense.” 

    She said she is “alarmed” that Correia seemingly used the department budget as his “personal checkbook” and that “San Jose State University isn’t more concerned that it looks like tens of thousands of dollars were taken and misused.” 

    Students who make up the campus group, Student Coalition for SJSU Accountability, also organized an online petition calling on the university to conduct a more thorough investigation. The petition has generated more than 300 signatures so far.

    Students Michelle Pujol and Latu Tapaatoutai said that the university’s conclusion of no fiscal impropriety reinforces a double standard for non-students. 

    “If you are a faculty or high position employee on this campus you can get away with anything,” Tapaatoutai said. “That’s the message that’s being perpetuated.”

    The students, faculty and staff members say they want the university to dig deeper into other decisions Correia made as Justice Studies department head. They claim that Correia awarded contracts to close friends worth tens of thousands of dollars.

    “There were favors that were given, course releases to professors for bogus service work, additional nepotistic work,” Kil said. “There’s just a long list of financial abuses that were never dealt with.”

    Those accusations were included in a 16-page whistleblower report sent to the California State Auditor last year. The Investigative Unit obtained a copy of that report, which details allegations of “misappropriation of funds” and multiple claims of “conflicts of interest.”

    After declining our requests for an on-camera interview we met the university’s Vice President of Administration and Finance on campus to answer questions raised by professors, staffers and students. Shawn Bibb said he is satisfied with the results of the investigation that his department conducted.  Specifically, the Investigative Unit asked how his investigation could conclude there was no fiscal impropriety after discovering the unauthorized checking account and more than two dozen personal expenses.

    “Our definition of fiscal impropriety is if we are made whole,” Bibb said. “We didn’t lose any funds. And in the end no fiscal impropriety occurred.”

    Bibb did confirm that he turned the findings of his investigation over to the Provost’s office for possible disciplinary action.  He also confirmed that he elected not to provide the findings of his investigation to SJSU campus police for its review.

    Bullock also declined our request for an on camera interview, so we met him at the San Jose Airport to discuss the concerns raised by the students and faculty. When asked if he was satisfied with the conclusion of the investigation, Bullock said that he “would be doing” more if he was not satisfied with the outcome. In response to claims that the investigation did not go far enough, Bullock said “what I thought needed to be done, was done.”

    The university sites policy in saying it cannot confirm or deny if Correia was disciplined for his use of the checking account. Following the investigation he left SJSU to become a dean at the University of Indiana in Pennsylvania. Several calls and emails to Correia were not returned. Though the Investigative Unit gave him multiple opportunities to address questions, his only comments on the matter live in the report produced by the university’s finance department.

    In a statement released to NBC Bay Area late Wednesday, SJSU wrote: "An investigation by San Jose State uncovered the misuse of university funds by a now-former academic department chair. The misappropriated funds were repaid to SJSU, and the person responsible left the university a short time later. We are fully committed to safeguarding the resources entrusted to us by students and taxpayers."

    If you have a tip for the Investigative Unit email theunit@nbcbayarea.com or call 888-996-TIPS.