As the Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) inches closer to its controversial board special election, the district is embroiled in yet another controversy — over a clerical error.
According to documents obtained by The Beat, George Liu, a Milpitas resident, filed a public records request in November 2019 asking for a myriad of MUSD classified employee information, including employees’ full names, gender, race, employment status, hours worked per week, years worked, hourly pay rate, annual salary, job title, work location, staff email, union membership, union membership dues, and pay periods.
MUSD’s attorneys, Harold M. Freiman and Steve Ngo of the law firm Lozano Smith, complied with the request. Lozano Smith instructed Jonathon Brunson, MUSD’s assistant superintendent of human relations, to put together the information, with the agreement that Lozano Smith would redact any sensitive data before it was released to Liu.
However, the law firm neglected to redact all sensitive information before emailing the document to Liu on January 23. The oversight meant the emailed document contained the unredacted social security numbers, dates of birth, and employee identification numbers of 875 district employees, placing them at risk of identity theft.
There was more. According to court documents, Liu then forwarded the sheet to another person, the identity of whom he refused to reveal to the district, the district’s attorney, and The Beat.
Uneasy about the lack of “first-hand assurance” from “Person A,” as court documents labeled the receiving party, MUSD filed a complaint with the Santa Clara County Superior Court on January 27. The court then granted a temporary restraining order against Liu, stating that he and any other recipient were to not disseminate the files but instead destroy them.
“I acted and am acting in good faith, happy to protect the confidential information of MUSD employees. I never opened the attachment or the documents I received from MUSD,” Liu told The Beat. “I only learned that social security numbers were included in the document when the school district reached out to me to address their mistake.”
However, the school district didn’t feel settled about the involvement of Person A.
In a declaration by Ngo, as part of the application for the temporary restraining order, he wrote in part:
“Despite my repeated pleas and best efforts, Mr. Liu has refused to provide the District with a copy of Person A’s alleged declaration. The District is left only with a second-hand hearsay account of Person A’s actions with respect to the Inadvertently Produced Documents. I cannot confirm whether Person A accessed, copied, or shared–or has plans to access, copy, or share–the Inadvertently Produced Documents.”
Over the next week, Person A’s counsel — former Milpitas City Councilmember Garry Barbadillo and Kenneth Brooks, — engaged in a back-and-forth with MUSD’s attorneys, in an attempt to negotiate the terms of the protective order. Public records show that things got heated between both camps.
At one point, Brooks accused the district of wrongdoing, threatening to sue. Ngo wrote of one of his phone conversations with Brooks, stating that Barbadillo had accused the district of having “political motivation,” while the district worked to get clarity and resolution surrounding the involvement and identity of Person A.
Given the special election backdrop, the mention of “political motivation” could stem from the fact that George Liu and school board candidate Ling Kong, who is running in the special election, have a history.
Liu and Kong currently serve together on the Energy and Environmental Sustainability Commission. Their history goes as far back as at least 2016, when the duo worked on the campaign to support Measure L, Milpitas’s garbage contract referendum. The measure eventually passed in November, 2016.
Sources who have worked with both Liu and Kong on Measure L say Liu is also part of Better Milpitas, an online advocacy group whose tight-lipped members make themselves difficult to identify.
Along with a group of Kong’s friends from South Bay Eco Citizens, Better Milpitas members were the first to initiate a petition to hold a special election to fill the vacant school board seat, and have almost exclusively campaigned for Kong to fill that seat. The special election will cost the school district over $100,000 to fill the remainder of a board seat term that expires in November.
Better Milpitas has also lobbied successfully to permanently ban cannabis shops in Milpitas, and — according to first-hand accounts by Councilmember Anthony Phan and former Vice Mayor Marsha Grilli — threatened councilmembers to vote their way on multiple occasions. Better Milpitas also allegedly orchestrated anti-rent control Facebook threats sent to then-Vice Mayor Karina Dominguez as the City Council mulled two tenant protection ordinances.
Some MUSD teachers believe Liu’s public records request stemmed from his involvement with Better Milpitas, and his intention to use teachers’ information to benefit Kong’s campaign.
The Beat reached out to George Liu to ask whether or not he is a part of the Better Milpitas group. He denied any association.
“The collection of information through a public request for information is a right of every American citizen to ensure transparent government. Many American citizens have used that right. I am neither the first nor the last to exercise that right,” Liu said. “The disclosure of protected information of MUSD employees was an unforced error on MUSD’s part.”
However, one other detail potentially connects Liu to Better Milpitas. Within a few hours of Liu’s November 25 public records request, a Milpitas resident named Sherlyn Wong made her own public records request. Liu and Wong may have coordinated their requests, as they were made within a few hours of each other. Both requests also contained nearly the same wording and format.
The Beat has verified that Wong is also connected to Better Milpitas.
Wong requested from MUSD information on terminated employees, such as date hired, date terminated, age at termination, total pay in the year of termination, and reason for termination.
A few months ago, The Beat, trying to determine which individuals belonged to the Better Milpitas group, took a photo of the Better Milpitas group’s admins on Facebook. Wong was one of its admins. Kong was also on the list of admins, but was deleted as an admin after The Beat asked her about it. Kong has continuously denied any connection to Better Milpitas.
Over a week ago, prior to a mandated court hearing, Liu finally named Milpitas resident Robyn Chen as the other recipient, Person A. Chen is also a personal friend of Kong.
Kong has denied having any knowledge of what Liu and Chen were up to. When asked if the information on MUSD’s teachers was being used to further her campaign, Kong stated she never received the information, much less knew that the information was being procured.
“It is reckless to implicate my campaign to the district administration’s error,” Kong said to The Beat.
Diana Orlando is President of the Milpitas Teachers Association (MTA). She has been working for MUSD for over 30 years, and is currently a second grade teacher at Pomeroy Elementary School. “I’m angry [Ling Kong is] denying she had anything to do with it. We have proof she was a part of Better Milpitas,” said Orlando.
“She can’t claim innocence that she didn’t know anything. But that’s what she’s doing,” Orlando continued. “I have gone from anger, anxiousness, concern, being royally pissed off … just questioning why the public records [were even asked for]…I don’t understand why. I’m assuming it’s Better Milpitas. I just don’t understand why they needed the information from us. As an indirect result, our social security and birthdays were sent to George [Liu]. It was by the district’s law firm. But mistakes happen and I understand that.”
Before the teachers’ confidential information was accidently sent out, both the MTA and the California School Employees Association endorsed Kong’s opponent Minh Ngo for the special election. For the past several weeks, between about 7:30 am and 7:44 am, Orlando, along with other Pomeroy teachers, has been actively campaigning for Ngo on campus. Various teachers at Milpitas High School, Rancho and Russell Middle Schools, and Sinnott and Spangler Elementary Schools have also campaigned for Ngo.
“We’re allowed to campaign before contract hours, so we do it before 7:45 am,” said Orlando.
This election marks the first time in recorded memory when Milpitas teachers have actively campaigned for a candidate at their respective school sites. For Orlando, the reasoning is clear:
“People are upset about the special election even having to be done. They feel it’s money being taken away from the kids. And some of the comments [that Ling Kong has made on Facebook] about how our schools really need improvement and that we’re not really a good district,” Orlando said. “I think it has taken some people aback. Because I think we are a good district. I think our test scores do show it.”
Meanwhile, things continue to grow more tense as the March 3 special election draws more near.
Kong claims to have heard from some teachers that one teacher sent a mass anti-Kong email to MUSD staff on their employee email accounts — an action prohibited by California Education Code 7054.
Kong made a Public Records Request on February 5 to look into the matter, and has asked the district to carry out an investigation.
On February 10, sources say that Kong sent out a mass email to dozens of MUSD employees for the first time. The email contained one of her regular newsletters, wherein she laid out her plans for helping the district to cut costs.
Kong denied ever sending the February 10 email, claiming her newsletter list had not changed since December, and that no new MUSD employee names had been added to her list.
“I stand by all MUSD employees who are frustrated with how recklessly your confidential information has been handled,” Kong wrote to the employees. “I am also appalled that some have been exploiting your ordeal into a call of action to defeat my campaign.”
In the same email, Kong also mentioned her house had been broken into the night before. According to the notes made by the Milpitas Police Department, which was called to Kong’s home on the morning of February 12, someone had come in through the side yard and stolen Kong’s garbage can. It bears noting that Kong, while leading a successful Measure L campaign in 2016, was instrumental in establishing Milpitas’ new garbage contract, which includes the new garbage bins. A representative from the Milpitas Police Department told The Beat that while this incident would constitute a “theft,” it doesn’t meet the penal code’s definition of burglary, since the item was stolen in the yard.
After writing to MUSD’s employees, Kong mentioned to The Beat that all teachers’ email addresses were easily found online, and that no connection should be drawn to indicate that she received any email addresses by way of Liu’s request.
Regardless, Orlando feels that “a lot of teachers” were starting to feel “intimidated” by Kong’s emails.
Recently, Robyn Chen, the woman who George Liu named as Person A, signed a declaration saying that she destroyed the documents and did not share them with anyone else.
Chen could not be reached for comment. The district, meanwhile, declined to go into detail about the info leak.
“The district is limited in its ability to comment on this matter because there is still litigation pending,” Brunson told The Beat. “The incident affected some, but not all, employees. Immediate action was taken to protect our staff. The district receives various types of Public Records Act requests, with the number of requests increasing over the past six months.”
In the last several months, sources say that the school district has been flooded with Public Records Requests, from both Kong and assorted individuals from the Better Milpitas group. The Beat is awaiting a list of Public Records Requests from the district over the last few months to verify these claims.
In the wake of the inadvertent leak, Lozano Smith has offered all district employees free credit monitoring, and suggested they keep close tabs on their credit records.
For some MUSD employees, like Orlando, a feeling of uncertainty still lingers.
“People are still upset,” said Orlando. “There’s still a sense of anxiety. What if they really didn’t destroy these documents?”
Editor’s note: The article has been updated to change the mention of a cannabis tax ordinance to the banning of cannabis shops. Another update was made in regard to why Mr. Barbadillo said “politically motivated,” and to correct an error and show that he and Brooks were, in fact, Person A’s counsel (not Mr. Liu’s).
In order to be fully transparent and convey all sides of this situation, we’ve also included many of the relevant Public Records here.