$120 per hour high-speed rail meetings called into question

Gilroy Unified School District trustee Francisco Dominguez is in

A Gilroy school board trustee has
billed a state-hired firm for roughly a dozen local meet-and-greets
that residents and community groups say never happened.

A Gilroy school board trustee with an $80,000 contract to perform community outreach in South County for the California High-Speed Rail Authority has billed a state-hired firm for roughly a dozen local meet-and-greets that residents and community groups say never happened.

Francisco Dominguez – who is already being investigated by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office for allegedly embezzling more than $50,000 from a nonprofit services outlet, the South County Collaborative – claims he’s visited local organizations and “targeted” residents since April to promote California’s high-speed rail project, including the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce and former Gilroy school board president Jim Rogers, according to invoices obtained by the Dispatch.

But those who spoke to the Dispatch say they have no memory, or no record, of ever meeting with Dominguez, who even claimed a two-hour meeting with the South County Collaborative on April 25 – five months after the organization severed its ties with the embattled trustee.

“I think you may have the wrong person,” said Larry McElvain, executive director for Discovery Counseling Center in Morgan Hill, when asked if he had ever met with Dominguez.

In his invoices, Dominguez claims he met with McElvain for three hours – at $120 an hour – on April 28 as part of a series of “one-to-one informational meetings” to promote high-speed rail. McElvain said the meeting never happened.

“I haven’t held any meetings related to high-speed rail,” he reiterated.

But Dominguez – who prefaced a phone interview with the Dispatch by saying he wasn’t supposed to speak to the media regarding high-speed rail – said he has met with several local groups to discuss the project since April, though he couldn’t recall exactly how many he had visited.

According to invoices from April through July, Dominguez met with 17 community or neighborhood groups. Representatives from eight of those groups said those meetings never occurred. Of the 12 “targeted individuals” Dominguez met with, five denied individual meetings, while one person said he probably didn’t meet with Dominguez, but couldn’t say for sure.

When asked if his outreach efforts included meeting individual residents, such as Jim Rogers, Dominguez said yes.

“That’s what I’ve done over the last several months,” he said.

Rogers said definitively, however, he has never met with Dominguez.

“I don’t remember that at all,” Rogers said, when told Dominguez had submitted invoices for a two-hour, one-on-one meeting April 26. “I haven’t talked to him about high-speed rail.”

Dominguez, who is the sole owner of DZ Consulting, is a subcontractor for Parsons, a firm that has as a $55 million contract to create community outreach for the Rail Authority’s San Jose-to-Merced segment.

Rachel Wall, a spokeswoman for the Rail Authority said none of Dominguez’s invoices have been paid due to “technical issues with the billing,” but didn’t elaborate. Dominguez’ invoices from April through July total roughly $25,000.

When asked to respond to claims from residents and community groups that the meetings never happened, or if perhaps those individuals forgot having met with him, Dominguez said, “I don’t know where you are going with this. Like I said, I’m not authorized to speak about high-speed rail.”

Others who spoke with the Dispatch don’t recall him speaking about high-speed rail, period.

“I haven’t seen him at our meetings for quite a while. Not since the big to-do,” Chamber President Susan Valenta said, referencing the embezzlement accusations, which surfaced in May.

The only times Dominguez has attended Chamber meetings, he’s done so representing the Gilroy Unified School District, she said.

“And nothing in relation to the high-speed rail,” Valenta said.

Valenta flipped through past meeting minutes and Chamber notes as she checked records during a phone interview.

Dominguez attended a Chamber Government Relations Committee meeting in April, but as a school district rep, Valenta said.

“He never spoke up as far as anything to do with the high-speed rail,” she said.

The Chamber and Leadership Gilroy also held a joint meeting May 13, which Dominguez probably did not attend, Valenta said, because “there was no comment by him” in meeting minutes.

She flipped to June 10, when officials spoke about the city’s high-speed rail Visioning Project: “I do not see his name on that,” she said.

She added, “If he was involved with it, he would have been there for that, but he was not.”

July 8 – for which Dominguez billed Parsons two hours worth of work – told the same story, according to Valenta.

Dominguez also claimed a one-hour Chamber “general membership meeting,” according to the invoices. Valenta said that was a Chamber mixer held at Santa Barbara Bank and Trust, where large groups of local business owners gather to rub elbows with one another.

“Business can be conducted (at those mixers),” Valenta said. “It would be difficult to discuss high-speed rail in a profound way. If he can do that, more power to him.”

Valenta said contact between the Chamber and Dominguez has been minuscule.

“From my perspective, I have not been approached by Mr. Dominguez on high-speed rail or any issues for that matter,” she said.

Dominguez also billed Parsons for a one-hour meeting July 8 with the Gilroy Downtown Business Association, citing business owner and developer Gary Walton specifically.

Walton, however, said he never met with Dominguez and questioned whether he had ever stopped in to speak to the group.

“I did not meet personally with Francisco about the HSR,” Walton reiterated later in an email, “and as far as I know he did not come to a board meeting for the Downtown Association.”

Eric Howard, president of the Downtown Business Association, also had no evidence that Dominguez participated in an April 18 association meeting, another session for which the trustee billed Parsons.

Howard said he would review minutes of past meetings, but allowed, “I don’t remember him coming to anything.”

Gilroy Foundation member Leighan Perales also nixed Dominguez’s claim that he spent an hour at an April 29 meeting for the Latino Family Fund, one of the Foundation’s philanthropic avenues.

“I’m not aware of any meeting that took place,” said Perales, one of the fund’s founding members.

Dominguez also submitted invoices for a one-hour meeting July 11 with the Gilroy Exchange Club and mentioned Rachel Munoz, Community Services officer for the Gilroy Police Department. Munoz, however, said she doesn’t attend the club’s regular meetings, and Exchange Club President Edwin Boggs said Dominguez never visited the club to speak on high-speed rail – despite Dominguez’s claim of a two-hour meeting April 19.

Dominguez came to Gilroy from Oxnard, where he served on the school board from 1996 to July 2006. He was elected to the GUSD school board in 2006 and served as its board president for one year beginning Dec. 10, 2009. In 2010, Dominguez ran for the 28th District State Assembly seat and lost in the primary to current representative Luis Alejo.

As a consultant hired to administer a federal grant for the Collaborative, he allegedly embezzled $52,600, according to John Blaettler, the organization’s former treasurer who resigned after the Collaborative’s board refused to pursue legal action against Dominguez. The District Attorney’s Office, however, is investigating, and has been interviewing people with knowledge about the circumstances in the last few months.

Deputy District Attorney John Chase, who heads the office’s public integrity unit, could not be reach for comment as of press time.

In his invoices, Dominguez states he attended a two-hour Collaborative meeting April 25 and offered information on the high-speed rail project. Collaborative Board Chair Lynn Magruder, however, said officials couldn’t have met with Dominguez. For one, there was no board meeting that day. Secondly, the Collaborative “severed our ties with Francisco in November 2010,” she said.

Terry Newman, president of Leadership Gilroy, was another person who struggled to pinpoint any time Dominguez may have spoken to her group, which each year is used to form communication between local leaders and residents seeking more influential roles.

It’s possible Dominguez may have attended the group’s Regional Issues Day, Newman said, though the dates don’t match up – the invoiced April 22 meeting was a Friday, and the Regional Issues Day was not held on a Friday.

When asked if Dominguez could have swung by to chat about high-speed rail any other time, Newman said, “I don’t think so.”

“Not that I’m aware of,” she added. “He never came to any board meetings or any alumni functions.” Dominguez is not an alumnus of Leadership Gilroy.

One person who appeared in Dominguez’s invoices and spoke with the Dispatch couldn’t say for certain whether he had met with the trustee.

Gilroy resident Keith Higgins, vice president of engineering firm Hatch Mott MacDonald, said he couldn’t remember a one-hour meeting with Dominguez April 19, but said it wasn’t out of the question.

“I can’t remember that meeting,” Higgins said Wednesday.

He later added, “It is possible that I met with him. I’m not going to say I didn’t.”

Still, others were more confident that Dominguez was a no-show.

While Dominguez said he spent two hours at a Gilroy Eigleberry Neighborhood Association meeting April 26, according to invoices, the group’s founder, Art Barron, says that didn’t happen.

“I don’t recall that,” Barron said when asked if Dominguez attended a meeting to speak about high-speed rail.

Gilroyan Ron Kirkish, with whom Dominguez claimed a one-hour meeting April 25, denied speaking to the trustee for some time.

“I don’t recall ever having a meeting with Francisco regarding the HSR issue,” said Kirkish, an antidrug community activist who supported Dominguez’s Assembly bid. “Also, since the story broke about his legal predicament, he has stopped all correspondence including returning phone calls that I have left.”