By David Taub and Nancy Price
Former Fresno Unified trustee Terry Slatic is under investigation for running up a tab paid by Superintendent Bob Nelson.
But, it wasn’t Slatic’s attempt to disguise hundreds of dollars of wine and liquor as tomahawk steaks that has him under the microscope of the state’s political watchdog agency. Nor was it Slatic ordering items not agreed to by Nelson. The Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating whether Slatic underreported on his disclosure forms the meal that Nelson hosted.
Any gift over $50 must be reported. Not only did Slatic fail to report the value of the $195 meal at the fancy Fogo De Chao Brazilian Steakhouse in San Diego, investigators say, but the five other trustees at the meal on Dec. 2, 2021, also initially failed to report the meal.
The Fresno County District Attorney’s Office investigated following a complaint filed by Nelson.
The DA’s Office then referred the case to FPPC, the state agency in charge of examining financial disclosures. The charges include receiving an unlawful gift and receiving a gift in excess of the $520 limit from a single source (Nelson).
According to state law, Slatic’s term expired last Friday. He lost his re-election bid in November to Susan Wittrup, who will be ceremonially sworn in on Wednesday.
Slatic did not respond to a GV Wire request for comment.
According to foodandwine.com, a tomahawk steak is a “large ribeye steak that is specifically cut with about 8-12 inches of the rib bone left on it.”
An Annual Dinner Tradition
In an Aug. 8, 2022, 47-page referral letter to the FPPC, prosecutor Victor Lai — head of the DA’s Public Integrity Unit — detailed the allegations against Slatic.
Nelson, in a longtime tradition, treated trustees, staff, and guests to a dinner during the annual California School Board Association conference. He paid for the meal himself, not using taxpayer money. Nelson set the limit at a $95 meal per person for the traditional all-you-can-eat meal (described by Lai as a “veritable panoply of meat”), plus two drinks.
Slatic allegedly arrived at the restaurant early — with an unnamed plus-one, identified only as a Marine friend dressed in full uniform — and ordered several alcoholic drinks. Unknown to Nelson, Slatic asked the server to ring them up as tomahawk steaks. Slatic and his guest also ordered “two Wagyu Ribeye steaks at $145 each.”
When presented the bill, Nelson questioned the addition of 17 Tomahawk steaks, “none of which had actually been ordered and consumed.”
Slatic informed Nelson what he had done, but when the superintendent asked him why “did not receive an answer.”
Nelson asked Slatic about it again at a subsequent weekly meeting. According to the investigative report, Slatic said he did not want alcohol to appear on a bill for a “public dinner.”
The revised bill reflected the extra items Slatic and his guest ordered — four Chopin 80 Vodka drinks ($14.50 each), one Don Julio 1942 tequila drink at $33, two bottles of Oak Napa Cabernet (at $202 a bottle), and two bottles of Opus One Meritage, at $435 each.
A witness said Slatic carried off one of the $435 bottles of wine, unopened.
What Did Slatic Know?
Lai questioned Slatic’s motives of why he hid the alcohol purchases as steaks. Attempts to switch out food for alcohol on the bill — to avoid a possible district policy barring the use of public funds to buy alcohol — could violate state law on fraud or misappropriation.
“This office attempted to ascertain the exact reason why Trustee Slatic had alcohol billed as food. … These results proved inconclusive,” Lai wrote.
Lai wrote that it is likely Slatic knew that the dinner was paid for by Nelson himself, and not the taxpayer. Lai pondered if Slatic’s intent was to “in some twisted manner, play a game of establishing dominance over Superintendent Nelson.”
The conclusion from Lai: There would not be enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Slatic truly thought the meal would be paid for by taxpayers, and thus a possible violation of the law.
Underreporting on Form 700
Lai waited to see how the meal was reported on the annual Form 700, the financial disclosure form all elected leaders and some non-elected leaders must submit each year.
None of the six trustees who attended properly disclosed the meal (the seventh position was vacant at the time following the July 2021 death of trustee Carol Mills). After a “reminder letter” from the Public Integrity Unit, all six trustees updated their Form 700. None of the other five trustees are the target of a FPPC complaint in connection with the December 2021 dinner.
Slatic listed the amount as $195, which included his meal and his guest’s (other trustees listed between $85 and $195). It did not reflect the Wagyu ribeyes, nor the extra alcohol ordered. Slatic did share three of the bottles of wine he ordered with the rest of the table.
In his revised Form 700, Slatic also listed other dinners bought by Nelson, totaling more than $660.
Lai estimated that Slatic’s total bill racked up that evening was $1,251, paid for by Nelson. The limit from a single source for a year is $520.
“This case was considered more appropriate for a referral to the FPPC for administrative prosecution rather than criminal charges,” Lai wrote.
Lai also admonished Slatic for running up Nelson’s tab, calling it a financial “abuse of his employee.”
What Investigators Learned
Public Integrity Unit investigators spoke with Nelson days after the dinner.
Nelson thought Slatic was paying for the drinks he ordered and was surprised when he received the bill. He described Slatic’s actions as “shady” to investigators.
Joining Nelson for the evening were Slatic and his military guest; trustee Veva Islas and her husband; trustee Valerie Davis and her sister; trustees Keshia Thomas, Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas, and Claudia Cazares; and district executives Misty Her, David Chavez, and Patrick Jensen.
The remaining five trustees, as well as Chavez, Her, and Jensen also spoke to investigators. They mainly confirmed Nelson’s account.
Lai tells GV Wire that investigators reached out to Slatic, but he was uncooperative.
Jensen told investigators that Nelson chose a fixed-price menu because in previous years, others have taken advantage “loading up the tab on his dime.” Thomas said she considered what Slatic did “stealing.” Islas asked “who has that type of audacity to do something like that on somebody else’s dime?”
Islas also accused Slatic of similar behavior in the past, such as ordering “top-shelf” drinks for himself on Nelson’s account.
Investigators spoke with restaurant staffers who identified Slatic as “the man in charge,” even though he did not pay the bill. A server said it is not unusual for alcohol to be billed as food.
Nelson: ‘Shocking to Me’
Nelson told GV Wire on Monday that when he received the initial bill for $3,702.79, “it was shocking to me, to be very honest.”
When he discovered that the restaurant had substituted tomahawk steaks for alcohol, he questioned the restaurant staff.
“It was listed as meat, Tomahawk steaks, and I just said, ‘Believe me, I would know if I ate a tomahawk steak, let alone however many you put on here,’ ” he said.
The restaurant initially was reluctant to revise the bill, and it took “11 iterations” before Nelson was satisfied that the revised bill reflected the amount of food and drink that had been purchased. The final bill for 13 diners with tip and tax, totaled $3,542.82.
Nelson said he had arranged for the fixed-price meals because of a previous meal where the “price got really crazy.” He said he inherited the tradition of hosting dinners for FUSD trustees and their “plus-ones” during the CSBA meetings from his predecessor, former superintendent Michael Hanson.
Jonasson Rosas said she had not previously claimed the dinner hosted by the superintendent as a gift because of legal guidance she received from the district’s counsel when she first took office.
The meal was deemed a district function, and “our belief was this was not a reportable thing,” she said.
Once trustees were instructed otherwise by the District Attorney’s Office, Jonasson said she amended and refiled her Form 700.
This Year’s Dinner
Nelson said he hosted a dinner during this month’s CSBA meeting in San Diego for Thomas, Cazares, Andy Levine (elected last April), newly elected member Wittrup, and four student trustees using district funds.
He said in past years he also would have treated the student trustees to a meal, so this year he consolidated the meal to include the adult and student trustees.
The dinner tab, including tip, at Roma Mia, totaled about $800, Nelson said.
Jonasson Rosas, referring to the acrimony that surfaced during board meetings, said she expects smoother relations in the future.
“We have a new board. We’re going to move on. And, hopefully, Trustee Slatic can move on with his life as well,” she said. “And he can pay for his own drinks.”
Case Remains Open
FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga says the case remains open.
He said penalties range from a warning letter, up to $5,000 per count.
“Penalties are based on the type of violation, severity, harm to the public, previous violations, willfulness, types of penalties given in similar type violations/cases,” Wierenga said.