LBCC president, board members trade accusations of corruption, retaliation

Long-simmering tensions at Long Beach City College have erupted in recent days as the institution’s top executive and members of its governing board have split into warring factions, trading accusations of corruption, retaliation and misuse of public funds.

College Superintendent-President Reagan Romali is at the center of the nasty, high-stakes feud with some members of the Board of Trustees who have hired an investigator to look into Romali and a fellow trustee who has come to her defense.

Romali, meanwhile, is interviewing for jobs across the country, trying to flee the college where she says she’s been the target of retaliation for filing a 1,000-page whistleblower complaint in September alleging unethical and self-serving dealings by some members of the board.

Though the allegations in the complaint are unknown, the Post obtained a 19-page ledger kept by Romali dating back to October 2018 that summarizes dozens of interactions she’s had with board and staff members, including alleged violations of public meeting laws, sexist and racist remarks and descriptions of possible surveillance of Romali and her family.

Romali said most of the ledger was included in the whistleblower complaint, which she says was sent to local enforcement and forwarded to the FBI. A spokesperson with the federal agency would neither confirm nor deny they are investigating the complaint.

Amid all of this in-fighting, the departure of Romali, who was hired in 2017, appears imminent. The Board of Trustees has called a special closed session meeting on Wednesday to discuss the president’s performance review and contract, including “discipline or dismissal,” and at least one college where she’s interviewed is expected to announce a decision this month.

Those involved at LBCC, which includes two campuses and educates some 25,000 students a year, lament the months-long rancor and finger-pointing.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Trustee Virginia Baxter, who has been on the board for six years and is the only member who has largely stayed out of the recent acrimony.

Reagan comes to Long Beach

Romali was hired at LBCC in March 2017 following the departure of long-time superintendent president Eloy Oakley, who went on to become the head of the state’s community college system.

The vote to hire Romali was unanimous. Baxter, who was board president at the time, said it was important that the new head of the college have a mandate from day one.

College employees have cast Romali as a “warrior for students” who has gone to bat for faculty and staff while leading a dramatic turnaround of the college that previously ranked low in the state for student success.

Recent data from the California Community College Chancellor’s office shows that under Romali’s leadership, LBCC has become the state’s second most improved community college district, ranking in the top 10 of all community colleges for awards, degrees and certificates growth in the 2018-2019 academic year.

In 2018, the board rewarded her performance by approving a new four-year extension that raised Romali’s annual salary to over $275,000, with additional health and ancillary benefits.

Shortly before that extension, however, Romali began keeping detailed notes of what she considered potential ethics violations by board members during open and closed session meetings and of her interactions with staff and board members.

The ledger

Those notes, contained in the ledger, were obtained by the Post this week in a records request to the college and have become central to Romali’s claim that she is being retaliated against by at least two board members—President Vivian Malauulu and Vice President Uduak Joe-Ntuk—who led the charge in hiring an investigator to look into Romali.

Both Ntuk and Malauulu denied any retaliation; Ntuk said the board was taking due diligence to protect the college and its students. Both said they knew nothing of the whistleblower complaint until this week.

Both also denied several specific interactions contained in Romali’s ledger, some involving alleged remarks about race and religion.

Other entries in the ledger:

  • On or about Aug. 26, Romali said she and four LBCC employees attended a meeting with police to report possible public corruption. The names of the employees were not included.
  • On Oct. 23, Romali wrote in the ledger that the board may have committed a Brown Act violation in closed session when it hired the investigator, Beth Corriea, to look into Romali. Agenda items for closed session meetings must state the reason it is being held in private. The board officially hired the investigator in November, which was made retroactive to October.
  • From Oct. 24 to December, Romali said she was followed home on multiple occasions, which was witnessed by her minor children. She said she reported this to police. She also said her son was followed home “by what initially appeared to be a drunk vagrant, who threatened to come get his mom and named her by name.”

Romali sent an email and the ledger to campus police at LBCC on Feb. 25: “Myself and three whistleblowers are looking forward to meeting with you today to discuss our personal safety in light of recent events,” she wrote.

Lt. Omar Martinez, who received the email, could not be reached for comment.

The investigation into Romali

The five-member Board of Trustees, which governs LBCC’s two campuses and oversees a roughly $143 million general fund budget, began the process to hire an outside investigator at a cost of $20,000 five months ago. The vote to approve the contract was unanimous, with Trustee Sunny Zia listed as absent. 

Sources, including some who had been interviewed by the investigator, said Romali and Zia are targets of the investigation.

No one would say on the record what the investigation involves, but three people with knowledge of it said it involved potential misuse of public funds and mistreatment of staff. The complaint into Zia is that she was complicit in Romali’s behavior, sources said.

In one instance, sources said Romali is accused of taking an LBCC staff member along on a trip to Miami in July, where she was interviewing—and later short-listed—for the top post at Miami-Dade College, the second largest in the nation. The staff member, Joshua Castellanos, allegedly traveled with Romali to watch her two young children and took them to Disney World.

Both Romali and Castellanos said in interviews that he did indeed travel to Miami during the same time period and did include her children on his family’s trip to Disney World, but that he used his own personal vacation time.

Other accusations against Romali involved using public funds or funds from the Long Beach City College Foundation to host dinners, which the Post could not independently confirm.

Romali denied the accusations, some of which were shared with the Post despite them being discussed in closed session.

Zia, who declined to discuss closed session matters, questioned the veracity of the board-initiated investigation.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to use tax-payer dollars to go after your political enemies,” Zia said Wednesday. “That’s the case with the superintendent and that’s the case with me. This is exactly what the Trump administration does.”

Zia has drawn controversy in the past; she was censured by the board in August after making comments toward Malauulu’s Christian faith that Malauulu viewed as “blatantly blasphemous behavior.” The vote to censure Zia was 3-2, with Baxter and Zia voting against.

Zia said that while the investigation has been expanded to include her, no specific allegations have been provided to her nor Romali and that this was merely a “fishing expedition.”

When reached for comment Friday afternoon, Trustee Doug Otto—who voted in favor of Zia’s censure and hiring the investigator—said he did not want to comment on the internal conflicts revealed this week.

“It’s best for me to just to stay out of it,” said Otto, who is running for a seat on the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education in Tuesday’s election.

Job offers

Amid the tension, Malauulu said she is preparing a transition plan for Romali’s probable departure.

Romali is currently a finalist for the top job at North Hennepin Community College in Minnesota, which is expected to make its decision in the coming weeks. She was previously a finalist for a job at Albany, Oregon’s Linn-Benton Community College and Miami-Dade College.

In spite of the tension, Romali said she’s still confident that she can work with the entire board to continue to work toward student success.

However, she hinted that her job search might not stop at North Hennepin Community College.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.