The Fresno Unified School District is questioning whether trustee Brooke Ashjian’s business dealings pose a conflict of interest with his position on the school board after Ashjian – who owns a paving company – filed a much more detailed financial disclosure form.
Ashjian, though, says the district’s questions amount to a political attack on him because he has challenged Superintendent Michael Hanson and district leadership over no-bid contracts and an FBI investigation.
The concern comes after Ashjian added more than 100 companies to his previously filed financial disclosure form earlier this month.
On Sept. 8, Fresno Unified received an amended version of Ashjian’s Statement of Economic Interest, which included a slew of additional companies with which Ashjian’s company does business – several of which the school district also does business with. All elected officials are required to annually disclose any financial interests in order to provide transparency and prevent conflicts, according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
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Ashjian’s updated form shows that companies that are customers of Seal Rite Paving, where Ashjian is CEO, also have signed multimillion-dollar contracts with Fresno Unified, including Bush, Davis Moreno and Harris construction firms. The district is questioning if Ashjian’s work with those companies creates an indirect conflict of interest.
According to Fresno Unified bylaws, school board members are legally and ethically obligated to disclose conflicts of interest in order to ensure that actions of the board are taken in the best interest of the public. A board member who has a financial interest in a decision is required to publicly identify all of those interests and recuse themselves from discussing and voting on the matter.
Board members shall not be financially interested in any contract made by the board on behalf of the district.
Fresno Unified bylaws
On Sept. 14, Fresno Unified sent out a mysterious news release hinting at a “new, unprecedented and intensely complicated pressing legal matter” that would delay Superintendent Michael Hanson’s planned evaluation due to its urgency. The district also delayed voting on purchase orders for the month of July, which include some of the companies in question.
“The district anticipates receipt of further information from member Ashjian regarding his amended Form 700,” Fresno Unified spokesman Miguel Arias said in a statement Monday. Arias did not release further details. The district has stayed quiet about the purpose of the alarming news release, citing legal matters.
Ashjian was first questioned by the district about potential conflicts of interest in March, when an attorney who said he represented a group called “Fresno Watchdogs for Ethical Bidding” publicly alleged the school board member had wrongly worked as a subcontractor for a firm that had been awarded a project on Figarden Elementary School.
The district pulled Seal Rite Paving from providing earth moving and paving for the project, citing a conflict of interest. Then Ashjian contended he was unaware that his company had bid on work related to Fresno Unified and said he volunteered to pull out of the project as soon as he learned of the bid.
On Monday, Ashjian said since the incident with the watchdog group – which has kept its leaders secret – the district has asked him to update his Form 700.
It’s 100 percent a political attack.
Fresno Unified Trustee Brooke Ashjian
“They said the form was incomplete after two years serving on this board. So I made it more complete,” he said. “They claim they’ve got a watchdog group inquiring. If they have a problem with it, they can take it to the Public Integrity Unit in the DA’s office. I welcome that.”
Ashjian said he could not comment while legal conversations are ongoing, but pointed to his public criticism of Hanson and district leadership as the district’s motivation for seeking information about the matter. Ashjian has been an outspoken critic in the midst of a lawsuit and an FBI investigation that questions Fresno Unified leaders’ conflicts of interest with contractors and their handling of no-bid construction contracts.
“It’s 100 percent a political attack,” Ashjian said. “The reality is this: I’ve shut down hiring criminal lawyers for Hanson, (Chief Financial Officer) Ruthie Quinto and (Chief Operating Officer) Karin Temple. I’ve shut down raises. I’ve exposed things with the bond that brought in the FBI. I’m in this job for the kids, and I’m going to continue to fight and expose the things that are wrong until we get it right.”
The school board meets again Wednesday.