Center for Community Partnerships

Long Beach City College Board of Trustees then-President Sunny Zia speaks in April 2019 in front of a crowd of city leaders to announce the Center for Community and Industry Partnerships.

An investigation into Long Beach City College’s former superintendent-president found she misused her office on multiple occasions, including using staff for personal errands and breaching her fiduciary duty to the community college district that oversees LBCC, according to a court filing this week — which seeks to have a Board of Trustees member recuse herself from closed-session discussions about the investigation because she’s also a subject of it.

Former Superintendent-President Reagan Romali did not return multiple requests for comment. Trustee Sunny Zia denied the allegations made against her in this week’s court filing.

The Long Beach Community College District board voted in March to terminate Romali’s contract without cause. At the time, the board’s attorney came out of closed session and said the panel took three votes — the first two were 4-1, with Zia dissenting, and the third one was unanimous — but did not offer details. Romali’s attorney confirmed the firing that night, but the board still hasn’t publicly confirmed it terminated her contract, despite naming an interim superintendent-president less than two weeks later.

This week’s court filing provides the first substantial public details from behind the scenes of Romali’s tenure at City College.

But the filing — submitted by the Long Beach Community College District to the Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday, Nov. 2 — centers around Zia and efforts by the college district to force the trustee to recuse herself from discussions of the investigation because the probe also found that she had committed misconduct, making her participation a conflict of interest.

“There is a conflict of interest for (Zia), a Board member who is one of the subjects of the investigation with substantiated findings against her,” the court filing said, “to participate in Board closed session discussions concerning the investigation report and potential legal action.”

Zia denied any wrongdoing and said portions of the investigative report that were cited in the court filing were “cherry-picked” and that the document also analyzed the conduct of her fellow board members.

“I’m not going to leave my district constituents unrepresented just because it doesn’t serve the majority of this board,” Zia said in a phone interview. “This investigation had far more allegations looked into for other board members, Mr. (Uduak-Joe) Ntuk, Mr. (Doug) Otto and Ms. (Vivian) Malauulu.

“If there’s a conflict of interest,” Zia said, “it’s a greater force for them.”

Malauulu and Ntuk declined to comment. Otto did not respond to requests for comment. An LBCC spokesperson said the college does not comment on pending litigation.

It is unclear when the Board of Trustees commissioned the probe. But Benchmark Investigations, a San Juan Capistrano firm, completed its report in August.

Multiple people familiar with the report declined to share the full document with this news organization.

Vincent Ewing, legal counsel for Long Beach City College, said the report is exempt from California’s Public Records Act “because it is related to pending litigation and is part of an ongoing investigation.”

But this week’s court filing cites the report. And the Press-Telegram obtained three pages of the report from the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, which received them as part of a complaint LBCC submitted against Zia.

The report makes multiple allegations against Zia, according to both the court filing and the three pages from the FPPC.

The portion of the report the Press-Telegram obtained, for example, said Zia tried to extort a contractor for the Port of Long Beach, where she is employed, for campaign contributions.

Zia said that allegation was “absolutely false, and it’s laughable,” adding that it came from a political adversary.

“I never had a position to approve anybody’s contract,” Zia said. “If anybody knows how the department works, there’s a decentralized contracting function. I never had to deal with this person or approve their contract.”

That allegation, however, led Long Beach City College to file the FPPC complaint, which included the three pages from the investigative report. Those pages align with the court filing’s characterization of the allegation.

The FPPC, according to documents from the political watchdog agency, notified LBCC that the allegations against Zia would not violate the Political Reform Act. But the FPPC forwarded the complaint to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, which confirmed receiving complaints against Zia and Romali.

The complaints remain under review, according to a spokesperson for the office.

The court filing, meanwhile, also describes multiple potential issues involving Zia and Romali.

The court document, for example, outlined an incident in which an official for the Long Beach City College Foundation, LBCC’s fundraising nonprofit, submitted a formal complaint to the foundation against Romali, accusing the LBCC leader of bullying her. The foundation’s investigator substantiated the allegation, according to the court filing, and sent a letter about the investigation and its findings to Zia, who was the Board of Trustees president at the time.

LBCC’s own investigation also substantiated the allegation, the Monday court filing said, and “found a lack of credible evidence that (Zia) provided the letter to the Trustees, placed the letter in Romali’s personnel file, or caused an inquiry or investigation into the matter.”

Zia, in an interview this week, said she didn’t act on the allegation because it was not substantiated.

“There was no merit to it, nor was there any request to have the board look at it,” she said, “so I don’t have any policies or procedures to go by to move ahead with anything, and there was no merit.”

The court filing’s allegations against Zia, taken broadly, paint the trustee as a staunch ally of Romali, as the former superintendent-president faced scrutiny from the rest of the board.

The board hired Romali in March 2017, wooing her away from City Colleges of Chicago – Harry S Truman. A little more than a year later, the board voted to extend her contract through 2022, as a way to ensure stability at LBCC.

But less than a year later, Romali became a finalist for the top job at Miami-Dade College, in Florida. She didn’t get the job, or two others for which she became a finalist — one in Oregon and one in Minnesota — in early 2020, but her attempts seemed to rankle some board members.

“There’s no denying she wants to leave,” Malauulu, president of the LBCC Board of Trustees, told the Press-Telegram in February.

The board, meanwhile, had been having monthly closed session discussions about Romali for at least half a year by that point, according to minutes of the panel’s meetings.

The board, at some point, also hired Benchmark to conduct an investigation.

That investigation, according to Monday’s court filing, made multiple allegations against Romali. Those allegations, according to the court filing, include Romali:

Repeatedly verbally abusing staff, including “screaming” at them, and making derogatory or insensitive comments to employees about their sexuality or race;

Directing staff to fire an employee without due process;

Making multiple false statements in her role as superintendent-president; and

Making false statements about her role in brokering a peace deal among rival gangs while working in Chicago.

The accusations of false statements, according to the court filing, include Romali creating and distributing to law enforcement and media “an unverified document” that “contained false and misleading information and wrongly accused several Trustees of gross misconduct, breach of fiduciary duties, sexual harassment, and other violations of the law.”

Those allegations, though, are not the subject of a lawsuit — yet.

Rather, they act as evidence in LBCC’s Monday court filing that asks a judge to force Zia to recuse herself from discussing the report that contains the allegations.

“It is necessary for the Board to meet in closed session with its legal counsel to discuss the investigation,” the court filing said, “and possible legal action against (Zia) and Romali related to the findings of the investigation.”

That legal action, according to the document, could include suing Romali, and censuring, suing or prosecuting Zia based on the investigative report’s findings.

The allegations against Zia, according to the court filing, include her:

Pushing for Romali’s contract extension, though her existing one was not yet up for renewal and despite the foundation’s investigation into the superintendent-president ongoing at the same time;

Working with Romali to make “false allegations” that Ntuk and Malauulu “tried to pressure Romali to terminate or demote an employee for making disparaging remarks about Trustee Ntuk”; and

Trying to prevent the investigation from moving forward during open session meetings from late last year to the present.

Zia, for her part, said her reason for not recusing herself is because the full report also implicates other board members that, she added, should also require recusal by them under the filing’s logic. The Press-Telegram has not independently verified the contents of the full report.

“They have unclean hands themselves,” Zia said of her colleagues, “and they have far greater conflicts of interest.”

Zia said she believes the full investigative report should be made public.

“I think the public deserves to know and see the full report,” she said, “and judge for themselves what a waste of taxpayer money it is for it to be used for political reasons and how it’s being weaponized.”

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