Update: 3/14/2023: An update from The Mercury News says that the county will not file any legal action against McCorquodale for breach of contract. They determined that the expense of the case would likely outstrip any realistic recovery.
Back in June 2022, I told the story of Jean McCorquodale, who worked as a grant writer for Santa Clara County.
She had received a new contract, one that resulted in a significant jump in pay, and would have her write a book about the history of the county and its government. That book was handed in two years behind schedule, but a review by The Mercury News found that at least one fifth of the book was heavily plagiarized from online sources.
The project was put on hold pending an investigation.
At the time, I referred to it as a $500,000 plagiarism scandal. However, it appears that early estimate quite a bit low.
That’s because the county has completed its investigation of McCorquodale and the book she wrote. They officially decided to cancel the project and have put the total money spent on it at over $1 million.
This has led to several involved with the county’s government to call for legal action against McCorquodale to reclaim some of that money. However, in an earlier interview with The Mercury News, the county’s counsel, James Williams, said that their legal options ranged from simply dropping the matter to initiating a contract dispute.
But, regardless of what happens next, this story is likely to haunt both McCorquodale and the county for a long, long time to come.
Not in a Vacuum
To be clear, the plagiarism didn’t happen in a vacuum and, most likely, the book would have been controversial regardless of what was inside it.
The reason is that details of McCorquodale’s contracts with the county were coming to light. McCorquodale is the wife of Dan McCorquodale, a former county official and long-serving state senator.
It is widely believed that the McCorquodales used their political clout to get Jean premium contracts with the county. This is furthered by the fact that county officials circumvented bidding rules to steer the book project toward Jean McCorquodale and the fact the couple had made campaign contributions to Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager, who was a major supporter of the project.
Whether it was $500,000 or $1 million, it was a large amount of money to spend on a book that was planned to solely reside at the county headquarters and in the archives.
So, controversy was inevitable. However, the plagiarism certainly didn’t help things for Jean McCorquodale. It cast serious questions on the quality of her work, not just how she obtained the contracts.
It also provided an easy reason for the county to cancel the project and may provide the basis for a legal challenge to McCorquodale herself.
With the project already two years behind, McCorquodale would have been wise to ensure that the book was the absolute best that it could be. Though it wouldn’t have vindicated the suspicion around how she got the work or the value the project provided the county, it would have at least proved her efforts sincere.
Instead, McCorquodale won a lucrative contract under dubious circumstances, failed to complete that project in the time allotted and then submitted a book that contained significant amounts of plagiarized material.
It’s a major embarrassment to both her and the county.
A Bad Response
McCorquodale has not responded to the latest revelations. However, in the original coverage, she made the claim that the version of the book that was handed in was a first draft.
In short, she didn’t deny that the copied content was there, but said that it was intended to be “placeholders” for further edits.
As I discussed then, that explanation doesn’t track. One simply does not create an original work by editing or modifying the words of others and, as an author, she should have been using a cleanroom writing system to ensure that her words were her own.
So, even if she had edited the draft to remove those elements, it still would have been a plagiarized work without significant additional citations. This is especially problematic since at least half of the sourced copied were not in the book’s footnotes.
As for the county, their response was at least a little better. They took the matter seriously and, by all accounts, have thoroughly investigated the book. They agreed with the findings of The Mercury News and even released the total amount the book cost them before the project was cancelled.
While it remains to be seen is what, if any, action the county takes against McCorquodale. Much of what they can do comes down to the specifics of the agreement. Nonetheless, they’ve been relatively transparent throughout the process, which serves to contrast the lack of transparency in awarding the project.
Still, it seems likely that there may be other action taken by the county and, if there isn’t, it’s likely that the reasons why they can’t act will become part of the conversation about how to improve the process of awarding contracts.
In the end, no one comes out of this looking good. The county has to answer serious questions about how this project was awarded and McCorquodale not only turned in the project significantly late, but with large amounts of plagiarism.
However, by thoroughly investigating the book and offering a final accounting of the amount spent, the county has made some first steps to addressing the issue. But without systemic change, the county could easily wind up in a similar position with a different project in the near future.
What will be telling is the lessons learned from this and the changes made because of it.
Something similar can be said for McCorquodale. Exactly as I discussed yesterday when looking at the Dr. David Agus plagiarism scandal, this amount of plagiarism coupled with her response to it points to a deeply flawed approach to writing.
If she is to continue writing, McCorquodale needs to make systemic changes in her work as well. Simply put, this is not how one creates original writing and, though the standards of originality and attribution are different for grant writing than non-fiction writing, she needs to fundamentally change how she writes if she wants to be authentic.
When it’s all said and done, what’s left in this story is a million dollars spent on a book that will never even see the limited publication it was slated for. It’s a tale of wasted money, wasted effort and wasted time.
It was a process that was flawed at every step, and its ending leaves behind only questions and missed opportunities.