Former Chief Suspected Holzworth, Says He Told Vice President

Illustration+by+Daniel+Barba%2C+Timeline+by+Erik+Jorgensen

Illustration by Daniel Barba, Timeline by Erik Jorgensen

Drew Sheets, Staff Writer

A former Santa Rosa Junior College District police chief alleges that he informed an SRJC vice president of former police officer Jeff Holzworth’s embezzlement scheme in 2010 and was instructed not to pursue it.

Former SRJC District Police Chief Christopher Wilkinson said he investigated Holzworth on his own and suspected he was stealing parking money. “I reported this issue two years earlier to [Vice President of Business Services] Doug Roberts and was told not to pursue it,Wilkinson said.

Roberts denies Wilkinson ever brought allegations about Holzworth to his attention and dismissed him as a disgruntled ex-employee. Six months after his hire, Wilkinson was placed on administrative leave and forced to resign his post in February 2011.

Holzworth, a 28-year veteran SRJC District Police officer, was arrested Nov. 28 2012 and pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of receiving stolen property over $400 and one count of embezzlement with a special enhancement for amounts in excess of $150,000 at his arraignment Feb. 20.

According to his defense attorney, Joe Passalacqua, Holzworth admitted responsibility in statements he made to police. Holzworth’s wife Karen was also arrested and pleaded not guilty to one count of being an accessory to commit a felony and three counts of receiving stolen property. A joint settlement hearing for both Holzworths is scheduled for March 13.

While at SRJC, Holzworth was the sole officer in charge of collecting parking revenue and taking it to the accounting office. Detectives who tailed Holzworth in November 2012 watched him throw out pay stations receipts and change small denomination bills into larger bills at local credit unions. In one five-day period, detectives watched him change more than $2000, according to a search warrant affidavit.

Wilkinson said he was hired as a “change agent” in July 2010 when Dr. Robert Agrella was SRJC’s president. Wilkinson claimed Agrella instructed him to discuss a recently performed internal audit of SRJC with Joe Palla, a former SRJC board member who stepped in as interim police chief after Wilkinson was forced out.

Wilkinson said he met with Palla at a Chinese restaurant, and Palla outlined the changes Wilkinson needed to implement in his new job as chief. Wilkinson said he still has the four pages of notes from that meeting. One of the suggested changes was related to parking as Palla told Wilkinson of parking audit discrepancies, Wilkinson said.

Palla recalled the meeting but said he wouldn’t use the word “audit” and that they didn’t discuss parking revenue or Holzworth. Palla said he shared general internal concerns and told Wilkinson what issues current employees wanted their new chief to address. “People thought some things about Holzworth were shady but no one had proof or anything that would lead me to suspect anything,” Palla said.

Once on the job, two district police officers also approached Wilkinson with suspicions of Holzworth’s handling of the parking money. Wilkinson said he decided to investigate the matter personally. He confirmed that Holzworth had complete autonomy of the pay collection system, possessed a machine capable of zeroing out the parking station receipts and insisted on collecting parking money on his own.

When Holzworth took a three-day vacation in fall 2010, Wilkinson took the opportunity to go out with a community service officer and learn about the collection process, he said. He was aghast when he saw stacks of $1 and $5 bills “10-12 inches tall” and rolls of quarters off to the side of the collection bag in the very first machine.

This same thing happened with machine after machine. Wilkinson asked the CSO if this was normal, and said he was told, “Well, that’s how Jeff does that. Jeff said he would take care of the money when he gets back from vacation.”

“I said ‘No. You will take the money right now and bring it to accounting,’” Wilkinson said.

“Don’t you print out the receipts?” Wilkinson asked the CSO. “She replied, ‘No, Jeff does that.’ I said, ‘Take the money and the forms.’”

Wilkinson said he had 20 years of investigative experience during his 30-year police career, many of those years in internal affairs. “This is basic audit procedure,” he said. “I saw the telltale signs” of embezzlement.

Wilkinson said he went straight to Roberts’ office and told him, “This is what I saw. This what I’ve been told [by the two officers]. This is the current protocol.”

He said he informed Roberts of the discrepancies in the parking audit and said, “You’ve hired me to take care of this. We need to talk about accepting money and audit trails. We need to work through this. I think Jeff Holzworth’s pilfering the parking money.’”

Wilkinson said Roberts asked for some time and the two scheduled a meeting for the following Tuesday. “At Tuesday’s meeting Roberts told me, ‘You are to leave Jeff alone because he is personal friends with Dr. Agrella.’ I asked, ‘I’m to do what?’ He said, ‘You’re to leave Jeff alone if you like being employed here.’ I said, ‘OK Doug.’”

Roberts adamantly denies these claims. “Chris Wilkinson never brought any of this to my attention. I would’ve acted immediately, just like I did when it was brought to my attention by Chief [Matt] McCaffrey,” he said.

Chief Palla was quick to defend Roberts. “I have 110 percent confidence in Doug Roberts. There’s no doubt in my mind that Roberts would have taken immediate steps to address inappropriate behavior,” he said.

Mary Kay Rudolph, vice president of Academic Affairs, also supported Roberts.  “I’ve known Doug Roberts since he arrived at the college four or five years ago and had to work with him every day on very sensitive issues from contracts to negotiations to budgets,” she said. “I think he is not only the best CBO (chief business officer) I have met in the system, but he is absolutely a man of integrity and honor. As a CPA, being able to trust his word is part of his criteria to do his job.”

Wilkinson claims he visited Roberts’ office twice unannounced and found Holzworth in uniform talking to Roberts. Wilkinson believes Holzworth knew he was onto him.

“Jeff felt like he had a target on his back where Wilkinson was concerned,” said an officer who was on the force at the time and wished to remain anonymous. He confirmed that Holzworth was instrumental in getting the ear of top administrators to get Wilkinson removed from his chief position.

A second SRJC District Police officer who also wished to remain anonymous claimed Holzworth had SRJC administrators fooled. “They all trusted him,” the officer said. “If McCaffrey had not gone outside of the administration, nothing would’ve happened. He’d [Holzworth] still be getting away with it.”

When asked for proof of his claims, Wilkinson said, “I suggested a grand jury back in 2011. I’ll bring all of my emails. I’ll bring all of my memorandums and will gladly show them to a grand jury.”

Wilkinson said SRJC management was part of the problem. “I don’t blame Jeff. His activity was encouraged by management not addressing the issue. Along comes me and I say, ‘This is inappropriate. We need to change this.’ What do I get? ‘Leave Jeff alone,’” Wilkinson said. “I asked to meet with Agrella to tell him about this and Doug Roberts refused to allow me to have an audience with him.”

Dr. Agrella refused to comment on Wilkinson saying that he would “leave personnel issues up to the college.” Agrella emphatically denied ever being alerted to any suspicions of Holzworth’s embezzlement and echoed support for Roberts. “I’m positive that Roberts would’ve never allowed anything like that to continue. I think any story that says otherwise is BS.” Agrella retired as SRJC’s president at the end of 2011.

Wilkinson left SRJC in February 2011, only six months after taking over as chief. He said he’s been waiting for two years for the Holzworth scandal to unfold. “When Holzworth was arrested, I knew it was time [to come forward].”

Wilkinson, who is now police chief at Saddleback College, insisted he is not a bitter ex-employee.  “I’m very happy with my career. There is no animosity. I brought forth all the issues,” he said.

Palla, however, disagreed.  “There were certainly hard feelings between Chief Wilkinson and district police officers. They were about to file a hostile work environment complaint,” he said, adding that Wilkinson did nothing to bring the Holzworth issue to his attention when he took over the department.