Community College District sues 5 contractors, accusing them of ripoff

The College of San Mateo campus. CSM is one of three schools within the San Mateo County Community College District. Photo from the CSM website.

By Emily Mibach
Daily Post Staff Writer

The three-college San Mateo County Community College District has filed a lawsuit against five construction firms it says participated in an alleged “pay to play” scheme where former Chancellor Ron Galatolo received lavish vacations and trips and in return gave the firms expensive contracts paid for by a $1 billion in bonds approved at the ballot box.

The lawsuit lays out ways that Galatolo misused his post as chancellor to get the district to foot the bill for various trips and would exert pressure on district employees to influence who contracts would go to.

For instance, firm Allana Buick & Bers was granted a bid to install solar panels at Canada College in Redwood City, even though another firm should have gotten the contract. Questions have since arisen about whether AB&B was best suited to install the panels. But, Galatolo has a friendship with Karim Allana, and a few years after the solar panels were installed, the two went on a trip to Dubai, Nepal, Pakistan, Singapore and Indonesia, the lawsuit claims. The district paid for Galatolo’s portion of the trip, the lawsuit says.

The district in its suit says it is suing the five firms in order to claw back some of the money the district lost due to Galatolo’s alleged misdeeds.

The five firms named are Allana Buick & Bers, McCarthy Building Companies, Bunton, Clifford & Associates, Robert A. Bothman Inc. and Blach Construction Company. All were major contractors who helped renovate the district’s three colleges – College of San Mateo, Skyline in San Bruno and Canada in Redwood City – during Galatolo’s time as chancellor.

The Post reached out to all of the firms and Stephen Pahl, who not only has previously talked to the Post as Allana Buick & Bers’ attorney but is mentioned in the lawsuit as a co-conspirator of Galatolo’s. Only a representative from McCarthy responded, saying the company is “committed to conducting all business with the highest level of integrity in alignment with our Code of Conduct. We are not able to specifically comment on active litigation.” The lawsuit says that Pahl represented Galatolo “in connection with a dispute with the” district. The suit says Galatolo and Pahl allegedly “hatched a scheme” for Pahl’s representation to be paid for by the district.

Previously, Pahl told the Post that the DA’s Office asked AB&B for information related to proposals and met with some employees. AB&B has worked with the college district for well over 20 years, Pahl said. He said that AB&B was never aware of anything inappropriate going on at the district.

When asked if AB & B gave Galatolo, Nunez, or anyone else at the district gifts, Pahl told the Post in December 2021 they didn’t receive anything more than the standard gifts the company sends out at Christmastime to its clients. That year’s gift was a bottle of wine.

The DA’s Office searched Pahl’s firm, to which Galatolo’s defense attorney, Chuck Smith, objected. As a result, Galatolo’s criminal case, where he has been charged with multiple counts of 21 felonies related to perjury and misappropriation of public funds, has been held up while Smith and attorney John Halley fight a special master’s decision to release the records to the DA’s office. The decision is currently being appealed to the state Court of Appeals. The special master was appointed by a judge and is a neutral party to sort through the seized material to determine what can and cannot be used in a court trial.


  1. I was a senior administrator in the District back in 2019. I had little contact with Galatolo, except I once participated in a meeting with administrators at Skyline College called by the Chancellor. He was bragging about a ski weekend in Tahoe. He then launched into a soliloquy about how he won a battle with the Board and was gleeful. He used profanity and disparaged Board members. For someone only at SMCCCD three months, but having spent three decades in higher ed, I was shocked to hear a chancellor talk this way. Even more disturbing, the other admininstrators cheered him on. As the new kid in town I was baffled. Was I not privy to some inside information? I soon came to realize that this represented the Districts culture; from my experience, academia behaved very differently… Why am I not surprised to read all the news about SMCCCD during the Galatolo reign?

    Michael B. Reiner, PhD, is a higher education consultant and educational researcher. Previously, he was a professor of psychology and college administrator at City University of New York (CUNY), Miami Dade College, the Riverside Community College District, and the San Mateo County Community College District. [Portion removed — Terms of Service violation. Please, no links.]

  2. The story said Galatolo’s trip to Dubai, Nepal, Pakistan, Singapore and Indonesia was paid by the district. What was the educational value in the chancellor visiting these countries? Who approved his trip? Did this go to the board? Where was the board during all of this.

  3. Students First is the mantra of the SMCCCD Board of Trustees, thankfully this current board seems to believe that. It also seems that the law firm of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy along with additional attorneys must believe in the same mission and are trying to get to the bottom of this madness. Taxpayers and residents apparently have been duped into supporting bond measures that used vague language to build extravagant buildings that are NOT for Students First. This must change immediately. Should any administrator who could in any way be associated with these schemes or who were hired or promoted during the former chancellor’s reign be concerned? One would think that is the case. What has taken so long for the San Mateo District Attorneys office to follow up on these issues ? It seems other agencies have found so many more details relating to these shenanigans that continue to shock San Mateo County residents on daily basis. We deserve answers NOW!

    • Dear Refund Bond Money for Taxpayers,

      I published the following Letter to the Editor March 30, 2021:

      Waiting for Wagstaffe

      Waiting for Wagstaffe is like waiting for Gadot. In Beckett’s Theatre of the Absurd, two men wait for a third who never arrives. In common parlance, “waiting for Godot” is a phase to describe a situation where people are waiting for something to happen, but it probably never will.

      After the DA executed a search warrant on the office of former San Mateo County Community College District Chancellor Ron Galatolo in August of 2019, the press indicated an indictment was expected before the end of the year. (Galatolo was subsequently indicted in April of 2022)

      That was nineteen months ago. Perhaps the case is more complex than originally reported? Initially it involved $1 billion of construction bond money, harassment of personnel, including the District’s attorney Eugene Whitlock culminating in a $2.8 million settlement payout.

      In addition, the former Board (with three members still serving) negotiated an outrageous contract for Galatolo as Chancellor Emeritus (a non-existent job) for what can only be described as a boondoggle. To their credit, the current Trustees used some fancy legal maneuvering to annul the chancellor emeritus contract and fired Galatolo under the older chancellor contract that was still in effect – that’s Theatre of the Absurd!. (The new members of the Board must have pushed those trustees still serving, who gave Galatolo raise after raise and overlooked his transgressions, to hire a law firm to investigate and push to recoup misused public funds).

      Perhaps the DA’s delay is because the former Board of Trustees is under scrutiny? After all, they provided final approval for all of these transactions and negotiated Galatolo’s unusual quid pro quo contract for $1.6 million.

      As elected officials, the public entrusts trustees with fiduciary responsibility and good stewardship of $200 million of taxpayer-provided dollars yearly for operating expenses. They should be held accountability. While a proposal is on the table at the Board meeting for some form of inspector general to ensure responsible financial, educational, and facilities spending, some trustees and Chancellor Claire objected.

      The media’s attention has focused on Mr. Galatolo. The former Board, though, was in the “room where it happened” and may have been complacent, complicit or culpable.
      Michael B. Reiner, PhD, is a higher education consultant and educational researcher. Previously, he was a professor of psychology and college administrator at City University of New York (CUNY), Miami Dade College, the Riverside Community College District, and the San Mateo County Community College District

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