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Controversy surrounded this past Friday’s Central Basin Municipal Water District’s (CB) special board meeting as an article published in Hews Media Group-Community News in print and online called into serious question the agency’s selection process for a new “ethics investigations” attorney.
HMG-CN exclusively revealed last Thursday, with documentation from a former Water Replenishment District (WRD) board member, that attorney John W. Harris, one of three attorneys selected to be interviewed for the ethics investigator position, “massively” overbilled WRD in 2014.
Adam Kargman, a former attorney of Harris’, submitted the document in April 2014.
Kargman outlined the overbillings and provided proof. In that same document, Kargman notified WRD he was resigning because of the fraud.
Harris eventually settled with WRD for an undisclosed amount.
CB General Manager Kevin Hunt and Nossaman’s CB attorney in charge of selecting the firms Alfred E. Smith II had “no idea” of Harris’ transgressions.
The selection meeting started with CB Director Art Chacon holding up the print version of HMG-CN asking if anybody in the room read the article.
Director Phil Hawkins, Hunt, and Smith II indicated they had read the article.
But CB President Robert “Bob” Apodaca, Vice-president James Roybal, and Director Leticia Vasquez said they did not read the article.
“I think this article calls into serious question our selection process, and we need to postpone these interviews for a later date,” said Chacon.
Hawkins indicated he wanted to postpone the interviews also, “how do we know the other attorneys are not tainted?”
Roybal snapped back saying, “these are just allegations, no proof that Harris did anything wrong, you are innocent until proven guilty.”
Vasquez and Apodaca echoed Roybal’s statement.
Chacon then asked HMG-CN Publisher Brian Hews, who was present at the special meeting, if he had documentation on the overfilling, “I was given documentation by a former WRD board member, it is very clear that Harris overbilled WRD on a massive scale, and the documentation has been online since yesterday,” said Hews.
But Apodaca, Roybal, Vasquez, and Hunt disagreed with Chacon and Hawkins and allowed the interviews to proceed even though the agency’s own rules in selecting an ethics investigator – that no relationships exist between CB board and employees – were obviously compromised.
“Certain people are watching us,” said Hunt, “we need to get this done and choose an attorney.”
Hunt was presumably referring to state lawmakers who are watching the progress of CB after an audit was released weeks ago.
The interview process began, with Harris the first to interview.
Oddly, Harris started his statement by saying how small his firm was, “we are a boutique firm, only four people including me.”
Harris also outlined the numerous investigations and prosecutions he had been involved in, “but now I defend criminals, which is not fun.”
Chacon asked if Harris knew anyone at CB or any “loved ones” of CB board employees or board members.
Harris first said no, then said he knew Director Vasquez.
A clearly uncomfortable Vasquez said she knew Harris, “but I have been in politics for 15 years, I know a lot of people.”
“How about any loved ones,” Chacon questioned.
A perturbed Vasquez interrupted Harris saying, “I think Director Chacon is asking since you are African-American, you know my husband Ron (Wilson) who is also African-American.”
Holding up his hand in obvious disdain Chacon said, “that’s not what I asked.”
Chacon again held up the print version of HMG-CN and asked if Harris had seen and read the article about the overbilling.
“I have read it, yes,” Harris said. “That document the article was referring to was submitted by a disgruntled employee, we denied everything, and settled with WRD,” Harris said.
Hawkins asked, “you settled?”
“Yes,” replied Harris.
No further questions were asked by Chacon or Hawkins.
Vasquez, Apodaca, and Roybal chose not to question Harris on the overbilling issue or the settlement reached with WRD.
Harris thanked the board at the end of the interview and asked, “when will we know about the decision?” He then walked out of the boardroom.
Lisel Wells, from Nixon/Peabody, was next to be interviewed. Nixon/Peabody is a very large firm boasting 16 offices throughout the United States and Asia; Ms. Wells was from the Los Angeles office.
After her initial opening statement, Ms. Wells was asked if her firm had relationships with any CB board members or employees or relationships with “loved ones.”
Ms. Wells said, “ we have conducted extensive research and found that no relationships exist between our firm and your agency.”
“We even investigated campaign donations and found nothing.”
Third on the list to interview was the Pasadena-based law firm of Gutierrez, Preciado, and House.
The firm’s Principal, Nohemi Gutierrez Ferguson, was twenty minutes late and apologized profusely to the board.
After her initial opening statement, Ms. Ferguson was asked if her firm had relationships with any CB board members or employees or relationships with “loved ones.”
“As a matter of fact, our firm does have a connection to Central Basin,” Ferguson said. “My personal administrative assistant is very good friends with Vice-president Roybal, they went to high school together.”
That fact once again violated the selection criteria of CB, which should have disqualified both Harris and Gutierrez, but Hunt and Smith chose to proceed, even while Chacon and Hawkins were vehemently protesting the selection process.
Ignoring the fact that, given his own selection criteria, the board could only choose Nixon/Peabody, CB GM Hunt said, “we now have ten days to make a decision we will decide at the next board meeting in closed session.”
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