The FBI and other investigators descended on Sonoma State University Thursday morning, serving search warrants and seizing materials in a raid led by the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office.
Federal agents examined computers in the university's administrative and finance offices, which were closed during the probe, and carted away dozens of boxes from a university warehouse behind the school's tennis courts.
The investigation focuses on potential misappropriation of federal grant money through a defunct SSU department, the California Institute for Human Services, said Sonoma County District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua. The institute was closed in 2007 amid a cloud of questions about its finances. Two top administrators were let go.
Allegations made then included that hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent on unapproved labor costs, that administrators received improper payments through nonprofit-agencies they ran and that expenses were improperly billed.
Thursday's raid was the latest development in a series of controversies that have dogged SSU during the tenure of President Ruben Armina?. The institute, and the notoriety of its closure, has been just one bone of contention for SSU faculty members who allege a pattern of unwise university financial practices under the leadership of Armina?, who assumed the campus' top spot in 1992.
"It's about time," environmental studies professor Steve Orlick said Thursday about the raid. "They no doubt will run across other things."
Orlick is one of a group of faculty members who have criticized Armina? and his administration on issues ranging from cost overruns at the ambitious and still incomplete Green Music Center to allegations of financial mismanagement at the school's academic foundation.
Passalacqua said the raid Thursday "involves a wide host of federal grants ranging from Head Start programs to adoption services and domestic violence programs in the region — the administration of those grants and the disbursement of those funds."
Federal Department of Health and Human Services investigators were also at the university on Thursday, he said.
"Tens of millions of federal funds are involved here and it will take a long time to unravel the voluminous number of documents involved," Passalacqua said.
More than 20 grants are being examined, he said.
Through a spokeswoman, CSU Chancellor Charles Reed said he "welcomes the investigation but wishes they had done it a long time ago."
CSU spokeswoman Clara Potes-Fellow said: "The chancellor said he was trying to get the investigative agencies to do this search for three years."
Passalacqua said that "any time there's a large amount of taxpayer money involved it's a serious matter and very meticulously and thoroughly investigated this. What transpired today was taking the investigation to a different level."
Passalacqua and Armina? said the investigation was prompted by an internal university audit of the institute's finances that was given to the federal Department of Health and Human Services two years ago.
Another investigation, by the campus police department, was given to the DA's Office, Armina? said.
"We are fully cooperating and we welcome it," Armina? said of the investigation, which he said "shows we had no collusion or involvement."
He also said he did not know of the raid before it happened. Passalacqua said that campus search was a mutual decision of the agencies involved.
"These types of operations, to make sure that they're done efficiently and in safe manner, there's a joint task force involved in it, and it was decided that this was the prudent way to proceed," he said.