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Potential fraud is focus of SSU raid


Authorities are investigating whether fraud was involved in the misappropriation of grant funds by a Sonoma State University department that was shut down in 2007.

The latest turn in the long-running investigation into SSU's California Institute of Human Services came Thursday when the school's administration and finance department was raided by the FBI and other investigators.

The Sonoma County District Attorney's Office led the operation and said that the investigation involved the "administration and disbursement" of "tens of millions of dollars" in grants given to the university and managed by the institute.

The department was closed amid a cloud of questions about its finances. Its managers obtained federal and state grants for SSU — $22 million a year by 2006 — and provided training and education to social service agencies.

Asked what kind of charges might result from the ongoing investigation, Assistant District Attorney Diana Gomez said that, if a case developed, "It would be some kind of fraud charges; it's both federal or state funds we're looking into. It could be a whole gamut of things."

The institute's two top administrators — Tony Apolloni and George Triest — were dismissed. No charges were ever filed against them, Gomez said.

"There were things that were being looked into," she said. "That's still part of this investigation."

Attempts to reach Apolloni, who also is an administrator in the Napa County schools system, and Triest for comment haven't been successful.

Computers and boxes of material were carted away from the university Thursday and it will take a while to sort through and examine, Gomez said.

"It's not something that can be finished within a week or two, it is kind of a lengthy investigative process," she said.

The search warrant, which was signed Feb. 17 by a Sonoma County Superior Court judge, allowed for seizure of an enormous array of materials, including computer hard drives, credit card receipts and e-mails.

Other materials sought included "any and all correspondence related to the disbursement of grant money" and "any and all records showing who had authority to approve disbursement" of grant awards.

Passalacqua said Thursday that at least 20 grants were being looked at.

Grant-related scandals of the sort that brought the FBI to the sprawling SSU campus on Thursday are "rare," said Andrew Mytelka, news editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, which covers higher education and academia.

"Just based on our own reporting, I just don't see lots of cases where universities are accused of abusing the system," Mytelka said.

Research-related academic controversies involving conflicts of interest are far more common, he said.

The DA's Office has been investigating the case for more than a year, said Gomez. Passalacqua and SSU President Ruben Armina? said Thursday that it had been prompted in part by an SSU Police Department investigation that had been turned over to the DA's Office.

The university police on Thursday referred questions about the report to the DA's Office.

Faculty members who have quarreled with Armina? over his leadership of the campus have said that the institute's problems stemmed in part from what they assert is a pattern of unwise financial decisions by Armina?.

The investigation is focused solely on the institute, Gomez said.