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The investigation Hartnell paid for, and other related documents, were obtained by the Weekly using a California Public Records Act request.

Cat food was what tipped off a Hartnell College employee that something was amiss with spending for the college’s Summer STEM Academy. A couple of weeks into the program that began June 14, 2021, the unnamed employee was trying to figure out why supplies for hands-on experiments and crafts for 1,000 Salinas school children weren’t arriving on time from Amazon, and logged into the account.

“[The employee] wondered why would we need cat food?” Fresno-based private investigator Ken Dodd wrote in his final report for Hartnell, dated Nov. 2. Other items ordered included nail polish and hair dryers. Two computers were shipped to the Salinas home of another employee, Rocio Segura Mendoza. So began the unraveling of two years of alleged misspending by Mendoza using a Hartnell College Foundation credit card on her Amazon account. She denies wrongdoing.

Mendoza was placed on paid administrative leave on July 9 after the questionable purchases were discovered. A few weeks later, Hartnell officials hired Dodd, who reviewed purchases and interviewed several employees in August, including Mendoza. He estimated that there were 102 personal purchases made on the Foundation’s card, totaling $10,784.

Dodd’s report details how in 2019, Mendoza was given permission to use the credit card issued in the name of the STEM program director, Julie Stephens-Carillo. Previously they’d been ordering from one supplier, but then switched to Amazon. Mendoza added the credit card to her personal Amazon account. Mendoza told Dodd she wasn’t checking which card she was using, her own or the Foundation’s. Mendoza also blamed stress from the pandemic.

Dodd wasn’t buying it, and noted she didn’t show any remorse during interviews. Mendoza tells the Weekly she is an honest person and looks “forward to being vindicated given the opportunity.” She says she willingly resigned on Dec. 17. (She was taken off paid administrative leave in early November, according to an internal report to the Hartnell Community College District Governing Board.)

In November, the college reported the situation to the Salinas Police Department. The department recently referred the matter to the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office, but Deputy Chief Berkely Brannon says the office has not reviewed the case yet.

Foundation Executive Director Jacqueline Cruz says in a written statement that the college and the foundation “take their obligations to manage their funds very seriously and will fully cooperate” with law enforcement.

“The Foundation’s books and records have been and continue to be annually audited by an independent firm to ensure that all funds are protected and managed appropriately,” she says.

Officials with the two elementary school districts involved in the foundation’s STEM program – Salinas City and Alisal Union – say they are not aware of any impacts to their programs, which include one related to NASA and another that teaches coding.

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