Resigned Ventura Fair CEO faces audit allegations over job in Bishop

A state audit is raising allegations of ill-gotten grants, undocumented credit card purchases, nearly $71,000 in unpaid rent and a litany of other violations and misdemeanors by a Bishop fairgrounds CEO who also ran the Ventura County Fairgrounds until last week.

Jen McGuire, a native of Fillmore, resigned as CEO of both fairgrounds on two consecutive days in late June due to health reasons. She denied any wrongdoing.

The 46-page report, completed in June by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said auditors found more than two dozen irregularities and “reportable conditions” at the Bishop Fairgrounds, also known as the 18th Century District Agricultural Association. Although the focus is on the Eastern Sierra Tri-County Fairgrounds, reference is also made to a second location that is not named, but which McGuire confirmed is the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

The audit findings, obtained by The Star through a public records request, focus on the Bishop Fairgrounds and cover everything from noncompliance with regulations to the use of inaccurate information in obtaining a nearly $60,000 loan for the Bishop Fairgrounds from a federal COVID relief program.

In a phone interview Wednesday, McGuire reiterated that her resignation was for health reasons, but did not provide details. She said she could not comment on the specifics of the audit but denied the allegations against her.

“It’s a one-sided narrative. Once I get some of my health issues under control, I’ll be able to tell my side,” she said. “Ultimately, it’s about politics.”

The 46-page report does not accuse McGuire by name, but focuses almost exclusively on a “Manager A” who was employed by two fairgrounds. McGuire confirmed that she is the manager. She was identified by the 18th District Agricultural Association in 2018 and earned praise as the fairgrounds won awards such as the Western Fair Association’s coveted Merrill Award in 2020.

She was hired by the Ventura County Fairgrounds – the District Agricultural Association — a year ago, and shuttled between the two jobs. In Ventura, McGuire replaced Stacy Rianda, who abruptly retired after less than a year on the job. An audit soon surfaced alleging financial irregularities at the Big Fresno Fair during the years Rianda was manager there.

McGuire’s situation escalated last week. She resigned from the Tri-County Fairgrounds in Bishop in a closed session on June 24. Her resignation was announced the next day by the fairgrounds on Ventura Beach after a closed session attended by board members and attorneys from the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Dan Long, president of the Ventura County Fairgrounds, would not give details of the audit but said it has been a rough week for the fairgrounds and described the situation as “disheartening.” He said it would not be surprising if the state conducted an audit of the Ventura fairgrounds, as it often happens when there is a change in leadership.

“We are not aware of any irregularities,” he said of the Ventura County Fairgrounds, also known as the 31st District Agricultural Association. This year’s fair runs from July 31 to August 11.

Long and deputy fairgrounds manager Heidi Ortiz were named interim CEOs. More drastic measures have been taken at the Bishop fairgrounds, with Mike Francesconi, director of the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s fair and exhibition division, confirming his appointment as interim CEO.

Francesconi and other state officials declined to comment on whether further action was taken against Bishop’s board. McGuire said the board’s decision-making authority was temporarily stripped.

“All we can say is that McGuire resigned for health reasons,” Bishop board member Jaque Hickman said in a telephone interview. She stressed that McGuire enjoys the “absolute trust” of the board.

Handing over the wrong laptop

The audit report alleges McGuire made false statements on an application form for a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration under the Paycheck Protection Program, a COVID-relief program for private businesses, claiming she owned the fairgrounds. Government entities like the fairgrounds were excluded from the program, but the company received a nearly $60,000 loan that was later forgiven by the Small Business Administration, auditors said.

They alleged that McGuire improperly transferred $25,000 in grants to the fairgrounds from a nonprofit foundation that supports it. The audit also found that the CEO failed to enforce an agreement that stipulates who gets what share of alcohol sales revenue at the fair. The foundation owes the fairgrounds nearly $100,000 in concession revenue.

Auditors said the Friends of the Eastern Sierra Tri-County Fairgrounds nonprofit foundation and the fairgrounds were operated as if they were one and the same company. They said three fairgrounds employees were board members of the foundation. They said checks made out to the fairgrounds were mistakenly deposited to the foundation.

The investigation alleges McGuire showed favoritism in the treatment of a Bishop Fairgrounds employee with whom she allegedly had a personal relationship. The investigation found that the employee worked as a contract worker for the Ventura County Fairgrounds during the hours she was paid for her work at the Bishop Fairgrounds. It says McGuire approved the contract work.

Auditors said they requested the employee’s laptop to document her work performance and were turned away. They said they asked McGuire to get the computer.

“Manager A (McGuire) then took a laptop, took us back to the room where we had previously conducted the interview and gave us a laptop,” they said. “We were unaware at the time that Manager A gave us a different laptop than the one that Employee B had refused to give us during the interview.”

They said it was only after they returned to Sacramento that they realized they had been given the wrong laptop.

“A History of Politics”

McGuire said the state approved the employee’s employment in Ventura. She also said the state approved a raise she received when she was hired at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, as well as an agreement that she would be reimbursed for travel expenses between the two locations.

Auditors said McGuire was not entitled to the raise because she was classified as an employee exempt from payroll taxes. They said the travel reimbursement also did not meet state regulations. They said McGuire must pay back about $16,000 in wages and reimbursement.

The audit found that the manager and the employee were living together in a trailer at the Bishop fairgrounds without paying rent. Auditors said the two employees owed the fairgrounds a combined $84,000 in rent, with McGuire responsible for more than $70,000.

The report alleges that McGuire was responsible for more than $38,000 in credit card purchases without providing receipts, including instances in which she allowed other employees to use the card. An additional $5,500 in food and alcohol purchases were made with the credit card without providing receipts.

The audit points to “improper” purchases in the general spending area. There is no evidence that large contracts were put out to tender or that the relevant tax forms were sent to the contractors, the report says.

McGuire denied any wrongdoing and said she would soon tell her full story.

“My employment record is excellent. Both institutions are thriving,” she said. “It’s a political story.”

Judy Waggoner, chair of McGuire and Bishop’s fair committee, drafted a response plan as part of the review. They pointed to new policies in response to some of the findings and said the committee would discuss the possibility of coaching or disciplinary action regarding others.

Auditors said the response did not address all of the concerns and reiterated recommendations, including paying the $84,000 in unpaid rent. They also stressed that the foundation should pay the district the $98,000 from revenue from alcohol sales.

Supervision questioned

David Grau, an accountant and board member of the Ventura County Taxpayers Association, read the audit and said the findings, if true, showed a lack of oversight at the Bishop fairgrounds.

“I would blame the board,” he said of the 18th District Agricultural Association.

Others reiterated their support for McGuire.

“I believe her leadership has brought prosperity to the Tri-County Fairgrounds,” said Bishop Mayor Jose Garcia. “When she took over the fairgrounds here in Bishop, there was $5,000 in the fairgrounds bank account. That fairgrounds was on the brink of bankruptcy, and when she resigned a week ago, there were two or three more zeros in the bank account.”

Jim Naylor, owner of Ventura Raceway at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, said he had not read the audit and did not know the results, but he praised McGuire’s contribution.

“She accomplished more on the fairgrounds in the short time she was there than previous managers who had been there for years,” he said. “She was a doer.”

Tom Kisken covers health issues and other news for the Ventura County Star. Reach him at [email protected].

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State examination