The Kern High School District will spend at least $78,000 on just one of two consultants hired to overhaul and investigate its on-campus police department, according to documents obtained by The Californian.

The district entered into two contracts after news surfaced that administrators had been misusing the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, or CLETS.

One of those contracts, with Sacramento-based investigative law firm Van Dermyden Maddux, has no set cost ceiling. The other, with Chicago-based Hillard Heintze for police consulting services, has an estimated cost of $78,100.

District officials would not respond to requests for comment for this story Friday.

The fees outlined in the contract between KHSD and Van Dermyden Maddux are vague.

The document includes a list of discounted hourly rates for public entities that range from $100 to $295 for services; there is no cumulative range of costs.

“Time charged will include, for example, time spent interviewing witnesses, writing the report of the findings, and performing any necessary research,” the contract states.

The firm recommends the district “treat our invoices as confidential documents and safeguard them appropriately,” meaning attempts to request them through the California Public Records Act could be difficult.

And the investigation’s findings may be protected under attorney-client privilege. The City of Sacramento refused to release investigation findings prepared by Van Dermyden Maddux related to sexual harassment claims against a city councilman. It cited attorney-client privilege, according to the Sacramento Bee.

When asked about the potential costs of the investigation last month, KHSD Superintendent Bryon Schaefer said he didn’t know.

But those types of open-ended contracts can become runaway trains, said John McDermott, a Colorado-based litigator who has spent 30 years dealing with internal investigations for public corporations.

“You can’t just let the law firms dictate the scope of internal investigations because to some extent you’re letting the fox guard the chickens,” McDermott said.

In spite of concerns the investigation will not be transparent and independent of the district, the contract states the firm has the right to determine the “means, manner and findings related to the investigation” and that the district may not interfere or influence the outcome.

But that shouldn’t be a trade-off for high costs, McDermott said.

“There certainly needs to be a mechanism set up by which either the school district or some other representative from the district is playing some role in defining the scope of the investigation and monitoring the cost,” McDermott said.

In this case, it should probably be the district’s general counsel, Tenielle Cooper, McDermott said.

While district officials have not said much about the investigation, other than it would answer all questions and is ongoing, McDermott said such investigations are typical when public corporations or entities face threats of government probes. In this case, that could be from the California Department of Justice, which oversees CLETS.

The fact a third-party investigation is under way could dissuade the DOJ from going too deep, McDermott said.

It could also give the district leverage to argue for lower fines if a probing government agency decided to impose such penalties, he added.

“It certainly puts them in a position to say, ‘Look, we brought somebody in from the outside and we’ve investigated this, you don’t have to come in and repeat what we’ve already done.’” McDermott said.

It also allows the district to tell a probing government agency that it didn’t try to deny or cover up wrongdoing, McDermott said.

The contract with Hillard Heintze requires the firm to undertake a “comprehensive cross-functional management analysis” comparing the KHSD Police Department with national best practices in police management.

Two other investigations of KHSD’s department have already been completed — one by the department itself and another by the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.

The Sheriff’s Office subsequently recommended misdemeanor criminal charges against former KHSD Police Chief Mike Collier and his boss, Director of Pupil Personnel Otis Jennings, for allegedly obtaining information through CLETS and furnishing it to people not authorized to receive it.

The Kern County District Attorney’s office declined to press charges, citing a lack of evidence and the passing of a statute of limitations.

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