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JOSE GASPAR: Free speech rights, reputations clash

Two history professors at Bakersfield College, Matthew Garrett and Erin Miller, face disciplinary action up to and including being fired for allegedly engaging in unprofessional conduct toward fellow BC colleagues Oliver Rosales and Andrew Bond. That's according to one of several findings made after a year-long special investigation by an independent firm hired by Christopher Hine, general counsel with the Kern Community College District. This stems from remarks made at a public symposium at BC.

Some folks at BC familiar with the issue feel it's a squabble involving four BC faculty members that should have been worked out among themselves. But Garrett and Miller claim their freedom of speech rights are under attack, while Rosales and Bond maintain their reputations have been damaged.

And taxpayers are out more than $12,000 so far for the cost of this ongoing investigation.

The public symposium was held at BC on Sept. 12, 2019. According to the Administrative Determination report, Miller made a number of statements implying that fellow History Professor Rosales and English Professor Bond were improperly using grant funds and BC resources to finance various "social justice" programs.

Garrett repeated the allegations in more detail in a presentation. He threw out claims purporting to show that Rosales and Bond were promoting leftist causes using public and private grant monies. At one point Garrett projected a map that included Rosales, Bond and others associated with BC's Social Justice Institute in an apparent attempt to connect them to a misuse of public funds. Further, Garrett claimed that Kern Sol News, a nonprofit media outlet that provides journalism opportunities for local youth, was being funded by Bakersfield College Foundation.

"We have a news agency that's on the payroll of someone here on campus," said Garrett.

After the presentation, Bond and Rosales filed a complaint with KCCD claiming allegations of financial improprieties made by Miller and Garrett were reckless and untrue. Both said had Garrett simply called them directly and inquired about the grants, they would have explained the process and how each grant works. It snowballed from there, with Garrett in turn filing his own complaint alleging Rosales and Bond were being retaliatory in an attempt to suppress him from voicing his opinions. Garrett then went on a local radio station and repeated the allegations.

The investigation made by attorney Ren Nosky of Municipal Resources Group centered on two questions: whether Rosales and Bond engaged in financial improprieties with respect to the grant funding in question, and, if they did not, whether Garrett and Miller unprofessionally accused Rosales and Bond of said improprieties.

"The investigator found the allegations that Dr. Rosales and Professor Bond engaged in financial improprieties with respect to grant funding were UNFOUNDED," states the Administrative Determination report. Further, "The collective allegations by Dr. Garrett and Professor Miller mischaracterized the nature of the grants involved and the roles that Dr. Rosales and Professor Bond had in administering them. The investigator found no evidence that Dr. Rosales or Professor Bond misappropriated any of the subject grant funding."

As for the second question, the finding was that Garrett and Miller made serious public accusations without giving Rosales and Bond a reasonable chance to explain the grants in question or to defend themselves.

"This was significant when the accusations proved to be misleading or outright wrong ... Based on the above findings, it is my determination that Dr. Garrett and Professor Miller engaged in unprofessional conduct," wrote the lead investigator, Ren Nosky.

Garrett and Miller have lawyered up and referred all questions about the matter to their attorney, Arthur Willner, who maintains Garrett never accused anyone of financial improprieties or misappropriation of funds.

"All Dr. Garrett was saying is that he disagreed with how certain funds were being allocated, which is an entirely different matter," Willner said in a phone interview.

"It's our position that not only are the findings inaccurate factually, but the entire process is in violation of Dr. Garrett's First Amendment rights."

The attorney also claims Rosales and Bond were given "every opportunity" to participate in the open discussion with Garrett but declined to participate.

"We're disturbed that Professor Garrett and Professor Miller have been dragged through the mud up until this point," said Willner. "We demand Kern Community College District drop the investigation and vacate the findings and end the matter." If KCCD does not comply with the attorney's demand, Willner said he will file a lawsuit in federal district court against the district for violation of his clients' First Amendment rights.

This ain't over, though. The Administrative Determination makes note that unprofessional conduct is grounds for dismissal under the Education Code. "(Faculty members) have a responsibility to make appropriate distinctions between statements of fact made as faculty subject matter specialists and opinions made as private citizens," it further states.

The report is in the hands of Bakersfield College President Dr. Sonya Christian, who will determine what disciplinary and remedial actions are necessary. As of this writing, BC has kept quiet, saying it cannot comment on a personnel matter. According to Hine, the KCCD general counsel, the investigation so far has cost taxpayers at least $12,714.50 in legal fees from the firm hired to conduct the probe.

Rosales and Bond are pleased with the investigative findings. Both say they want their reputations restored, starting with a public apology from Garrett and Miller.

"Morale has shifted; it's put a damper on a lot of things," said Bond.

For Rosales, the allegations against him left him feeling as though he was working under a cloud of mistrust among his colleagues.

"It was difficult to have accusations against me that weren't true," said Rosales.

Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com. The views expressed here are his own.