California legislators request audit into sex harassment claims at Fresno State, CSU system

Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) raised questions about the transparency and effectiveness of an ongoing California State University investigation into the handling of sexual harassment allegations at Fresno State, and said that a bipartisan coalition of state legislators on Monday submitted an official request for a state audit of the university and largest 4-year public university system in the country.

That request, to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, was co-signed by 43 state legislators, said Assemblyman Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield), chair of the committee. It will be voted on at its scheduled meeting on June 27.

"We have seen some very serious circumstances in which the California State University system has appeared to be very, very slow in recognizing these sexual harassment complaints, that they have created it appears to so many of us to be a system that protects themselves," Patterson said.

"And, behind all of the headlines and the stories are really the people at these universities who have been victimized. It's something that is just very difficult for these victims to understand, when they come forward and they make their case and the case is in fact justified, the victims oftentimes have been left to wonder, 'How can this be?' when the universities at the highest level create a set of circumstances in which the perpetrators are given a golden handshake, given letters of recommendation, been able to exercise their retreat rights. This has called into question where there is a systemic problem at the California State University."

The CSU board of trustees in March requested an independent investigation into how Fresno State administrators responded to reports of sexual harassment against former vice president of student affairs Frank Lamas from 2014 to '19, but a press release made no mention of the CSU, the chancellor's office or board of trustees.

That probe into Fresno State, which is expected to be completed within 90 to 120 days, is being led by Mary Lee Wegner, the same Los Angeles-based attorney who was hired by Fresno State for its 2019 Title IX investigation into sexual harassment claims against Lamas.

A state audit, Patterson said, would be independent, it would be broad, and its results and recommendations would be made available to the state legislature and to the public. The same kind of accountability could not be expected from a lawyer hired by the CSU to investigate the CSU, he said.

"I think there is always an undercurrent of perhaps distrust or a suspicion when a large institution has a history of hiring the same law firm, there is some kind of contractual relationship and there is also a practice of utilizing their services and they receive apparently regular compensation," Patterson said.

Audit would target sexual harassment policies and procedures

"That brings into question whether they are co-opted and whether they can actually deliver the kind of audit that I think the California State Auditor would produce."

In just the past five months the CSU agreed to a $3.3 million settlement with 15 student-athletes at San Jose State who were sexually harassed by a longtime athletics trainer, paid a $600,000 settlement to the former provost at Sonoma State who said she was retaliated against after reporting sexual harassment allegations against the husband of the university president, and came under fire when a former dean at Humboldt State who was fired following a sexual assault investigation used retreat rights to secure a position as a tenured professor on campus.

"The audit is going to audit the office of the chancellor, Fresno State, San Jose State and Sonoma State and it will review the system-wide Title IX offices and their investigatory processes," Patterson said. "We want to know what they do, how they do it and how did they come to some of these conclusions; why does it take so long and why there seems to be more interest in protecting the university than it is in getting to justice."

The auditor, Patterson said, would review sexual harassment policies and procedures, identifying the total number of complaints over the past five years as well as the timeliness in reaching a resolution. It also would compare and contrast investigations that took place at the different CSU campuses.

"Are there underlying similarities? Are there underlying processes that have led to some of the controversial decisions?" Patterson said. "We also want to review and evaluate policies regarding these golden handshakes, these retreat rights, where it seems that those who have been the perpetrators and and have (been) found to have done the activity that they have been charged with often times receive a payment, retreat rights, we've seen letters of recommendations, awards of excellence, things of that nature."

At Fresno State, complaints against Lamas started shortly after his 2014 hire, but former CSU chancellor and university president Joseph I. Castro continued to provide positive performance evaluation reviews and annual pay raises, a nomination for the presidency at Cal State San Marcos and when separating from the university he received a $260,000 settlement and a personal letter of recommendation.

Castro resigned as CSU chancellor in February.

Audit would start after CSU completes its investigation

The audit would start after the CSU completes its investigation, or four months from the date the Joint Legislative Audit Committee approves the audit request.

"There is a significant reason why we are asking for a state auditor's look even while the university has its own internal review, and that really cuts to the whole issue of trust," Patterson said.

"Unfortunately, the CSU has done some embarrassing things, hurtful things, and the university itself seems to be very protective of the higher echelons, particularly in the chancellor's office and presidents of the various campuses. We just want to make sure that an audit by the California State auditor is in fact the most independent, the most trustworthy, and we're going to proceed after we see the audit of the attorneys the CSU system has hired. We may find deficiencies. We may find other areas where the audit has something to say. But it's important, and I'm going to reiterate this, the California State auditor's office has a terrific well earned reputation of going where the facts take them, of being fearless and not letting political considerations or institutional considerations get in the way."