State Punishes Evergreen Professor - A Decade Late
A former professor at The Evergreen State College has skipped out on paying the largest ethics fine in Washington state history.
Jorge Gilbert's deadline for paying a $120,000 fine came and went at the end of November. It's not the first time Gilbert has avoided the consequences of steering college funds to his family members. Evergreen officials had evidence that Gilbert misused state funds more than a decade before the school finally gave him the boot.
John Ryan brings us this KUOW investigation.
Jorge Gilbert taught Latin American studies at Evergreen. He took students on month–long study trips to his native Chile. Rebecca Moorman went on one of those trips in 2008.
Moorman: "Jorge had us deposit our study abroad money directly into his personal account. But what we didn't know of course was that we were supposed to go through the school, because we're all like 20, 21. We're just like, 'Oh, whatever, we're going to Chile!'"
On the trip, the students learned that the Chilean company providing their lodging and tours was owned by Gilbert's relatives. The company's main line of business was installing porta–potties and dumpsters. Students began to suspect they were getting ripped off.
Evergreen officials later determined that the students were charged about four times the local rate.
Moorman: "I might have been naive, but I knew you couldn't really contract with your family's company like that and overcharge people. It was becoming more apparent that it was a conflict of interest."
After the 15 students got back to Olympia, they found out that the school had also started investigating the trip's finances.
School administrators rebuffed Moorman when she demanded a refund. So she convinced most of the students from the trip to get a lawyer with her and demand refunds together. Eventually, they won.
The school's auditor, the state auditor, the Evergreen police and the state ethics board all investigated Gilbert.
Moorman: "After looking at the audit, it wasn't like it was a fluke. It wasn't like, oh, this one time this professor took this money. No! This has been going on for years, and they turned a blind eye to it because they didn't want to deal with it."
In fact, complaints against Gilbert started so long ago, I had to use an archaic technology to learn about the early ones.
Sound: (Whirring noise)
That's a microfilm machine spooling through the archives of the Cooper Point Journal. It's Evergreen's student newspaper.
Student journalist Greg Skinner first reported on the problems. He's now a newspaper editor in Bremerton.
Skinner: "We wrote a story on the school's investigation of a 1998 trip. Nobody had any sort of knowledge that that thing was there until we started asking, I guess."
Three college deans had investigated that trip run amok. It had few lectures and lots of alcohol.
They also looked into students' complaints of Gilbert not delivering what they paid him for. So the deans asked Gilbert to account for the trip expenses. He refused.
The deans didn't ask again. Instead, their report simply clears Gilbert of any financial wrongdoing.
Skinner: "The story that was told to them in the '90s is the same story that brought him the ethics violation. It was all laid out 10 years before, and they did nothing with it. To some degree, they have some responsibility for all the students who got ripped off or turned off by Jorge Gilbert's trips to Chile."
That could be close to 200 students over the years.
The audit that led to Gilbert's record–breaking fine focused on just the last four years of his Chile trips. In a discrimination lawsuit Gilbert filed against Evergreen, he said he'd been using his relatives' company for the trips ever since he started them 14 years earlier.
Greg Skinner says he got a very good education at Evergreen.
Skinner: "This is the place where I learned if people weren't talking to you, you were on to something."
For this story, Evergreen President Les Purce and former auditor Maryam Jacobs declined to comment. Jorge Gilbert did not respond to KUOW's letters or emails.
Russ Fox also did not respond. He's retired now. But school records show when Fox was dean in 2004, he tagged along on a Chile student trip. He met Gilbert's relatives — the ones whose company was making money off the students. Years later, Fox told the school auditor that he hadn't taken the required ethics training, so he didn't see any problem with Gilbert giving school business to his own family.
But auditors and the state ethics board did see a problem, once they learned of it. And it led to Gilbert's downfall.
In 2009, he agreed to resign and pay Evergreen $23,579 — roughly half the amount the state said he misused. Gilbert has always denied the accusations against him.
Song: "Go Geoducks, Go!"
Evergreen isn't like other colleges. There are no grades. Professors teach in teams. Everyone agrees to a social contract. The school motto? "Let it all hang out."
Deans at Evergreen aren't like deans at other schools, either.
Evergreen deans rotate between teaching and management. A dean responsible for disciplining a teacher one year may end up being that teacher's partner the next. The school's auditor complained that the system of rotating deans gave them a conflict of interest.
Ken Tabbutt disagrees.
Tabbutt: "Actually, it works very well."
Tabbutt's been a dean at Evergreen since 2004.
He'll go back to being a geology professor next year after serving two terms as dean.
Tabbutt: "The way we teach at Evergreen is so unusual, it's sometimes better to have deans who are coming in knowing Evergreen as opposed to hiring external administrators. So you provide an opportunity for a faculty member to become a dean."
Tabbutt: "They come in probably lacking some of the administrative skills, but in two years, they become proficient in those."
Ryan: "Is this system of oversight working well if it takes 10 years for a bad apple to be brought to account?"
Tabbutt: "And that's a good question. It was certainly before I was a dean."
Ryan: "When you started getting involved, were you aware of the past investigations and what past deans had or had not done?"
Tabbutt: "All the files of the past deans are sitting in my office. Did I read through them? No. Was I aware that there had been problems with Jorge's trips in the past? Yes. We knew there were problems. We didn't know that there were these financial problems."
It is true that Evergreen had no internal auditor from 1993 until 2005. That's 12 years.
But public records obtained by KUOW show Evergreen officials clashing with Gilbert over his financial practices since 1991. That year, he gave $1,700 of college business to a company whose sole officer was his wife.
Time after time, school officials said Gilbert refused to cooperate when they questioned his financial practices.
Dean Susan Fiksdal canceled Gilbert's Chile trip in 1999 when he failed to follow the school's recommendations. This was a year after her report cleared Gilbert of any financial misdeeds. Dean Fiksdal rejoined the faculty the next year, and Gilbert resumed business as usual for the next nine years.
Gilbert wasn't the only professor not playing by the money rules.
Ken Tabbutt says faculty used to handle money very casually.
Tabbutt: "When I first came to Evergreen, and this was in '93, when we did field trips, the faculty would collect cash from the students. I'm not kidding you, that was the practice. I mean, it's changed tremendously. It's a different place — which is good."
But even after Evergreen completed its big Gilbert investigation in 2008, auditors discovered problems on other trips.
They found that professors returning from a Middle East study trip had no receipts for $45,000 of expenses.
In internal emails, school auditor Maryam Jacobs complained that Evergreen was the only place she had worked where the auditor isn't provided with the documents he or she needs. She said the faculty generally ignores her recommendations and continues its behavior unchanged.
Evergreen officials say they have tightened the school's cash–handling policies since then with a corrective action plan. A state audit of three Evergreen trips after that plan was put in place found no irregularities.
About 300 Evergreen students study abroad each year.
I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.
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