A South Bay college district board member is suing the district and his colleagues after they censured him for allegedly making racist remarks to an African American college president.
Gilbert Wong, a board member of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District and former Cupertino councilmember, filed a complaint in Santa Clara County Superior Court Thursday. The complaint is lodged against the district, its Chancellor Judy Miner and the other six board members: Patrick Ahrens, Laura Casas, Pearl Cheng, Peter Landsberger, Pierce Tao and Chamu Palaniappan.
In the complaint, Wong points to a dozen instances where he claims board members broke the law in their efforts to censure him, including violating the Brown Act, which sets open meeting laws, district policies, exceeding their authority and violating his due process rights.
“They knew where they wanted to go, and they kind of blew through their own rules and their system to get there,” Jim Sutton, an attorney for Wong, told San José Spotlight.
Sutton said Wong is not challenging the district’s ability to discipline him or others, but taking issue with the way board members and district officials went about it. Sutton said the board acted “incestuously” and like a “cabal” to achieve their goal of censuring Wong.
“We believe more evidence exists and we will vigorously pursue all relevant materials from the district through discovery and public record requests,” Sutton said in a statement.
Wong’s complaint seeks a court mandate ordering the district to pull back the censure, and to declare that the Brown Act and district policies were violated.
“He feels like he was railroaded, he feels like he did not have the opportunity to properly respond to these allegations against him,” Sutton said of Wong.
Miner, Board President Ahrens and Vice President Casas did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The complaint marks the latest chapter in the monthslong fallout following alleged racist remarks Wong made to De Anza College President Lloyd A. Holmes in a December meeting.
Wong was censured—a formal admonishment—by the board in late March. The decision came after a “determination panel” of board members and administrators issued a report finding probable cause that “Wong subjected Dr. Holmes to unlawful harassment and discrimination on the basis of race or color in violation of district policy as a result of his comments regarding skin color.”
Wong was stripped of some of his duties such as committee assignments, told not to meet with Holmes in private again and instructed to attend anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training. The board also called for the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office to investigate whether Wong violated the Brown Act when he allegedly discussed closed session information about deliberations over a new chancellor with Holmes.
At the meeting in December, Wong allegedly told Holmes he wouldn’t be supported by the college district’s Asian Pacific American Staff Association in a possible bid for the district chancellor seat because he is African American.
“I really appreciate your acknowledgement that many of the issues I’m dealing with relate to my skin color. I was quite shocked, as you may have been able to tell, when you said that Asian Americans tend to have issues with folks whose skin is darker than theirs,” Holmes wrote in his email.
He also told Wong he appreciated “your telling me that I would have been a better fit for Foothill since there are more Whites at Foothill.”
In a brief response email, Wong wrote, “I do not remember a conversation with you the way that you have described it below.” Though he said he remembered the conversation differently than Holmes, Wong later apologized for his comments.
A law firm hired by the district to look into the meeting between Holmes and Wong substantiated one allegation: that Wong subjected Holmes to unlawful harassment and discrimination based on race or color. But the firm didn’t back up a second allegation that Wong’s comments about the chancellorship rose to the same level.
The district never released the full report from the law firm, according to the Mountain View Voice, and the determination panel disagreed with the firm’s findings about the comments related to the chancellor position. The board punished him for both allegations anyway, apparently ignoring the law firm’s findings, Sutton said.
Wong “disputes that his conversation with Dr. Holmes provides a sufficient basis for the censure or other sanctions which the board imposed on him,” the complaint reads.
Holmes did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sutton took issue with the determination panel, calling it “biased and unlawful.” He also said the district violated Wong’s due process rights by not giving him the opportunity to respond to all allegations against him and by allowing board members with a “clear conflict of interest” to vote on Wong’s censure.
He also claimed the district “went to great lengths” to conceal misconduct in the process, including having two closed session meetings about the censure, when they should have been held in public, he asserted.
“It looks as though many of these trustees had a grudge against Trustee Wong and used this process in an effort to destroy his political career,” Sutton said.
The college district board in May appointed Lee Lambert, a community college chancellor based in Arizona, as the next chancellor for the Foothill-De Anza Community College District. Lambert starts this August, replacing Miner, who is retiring.
Wong is not the only person leveling serious complaints against the college. The district is facing a lawsuit that was filed July 10 by the former director of its diversity office, Tabia Lee — whose contract was not renewed by the college after less than two years.
Lee, who is Black, told the San Francisco Chronicle she received a letter in March notifying her that her contract would not be renewed because she was uncooperative with colleagues, unwilling to accept constructive criticism and unlikely to change.