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OP/ED: Deja Vu – 2024 Central Basin Board Removes Art Chacon, Acts Like 2013 Board

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February 5, 2024

By Brian Hews, LCCN Publisher

Flash back to 2013.

Leticia Vasquez, James Roybal, and Bob Apodaca took over the Central Basin Board and ruled for years, as documented by Los Cerritos Community News in its award-winning Dirty Water series. 

Vasquez was handing out contracts, Apodaca was harassing women, triggering an $800,000 settlement, and Roybal was in LAUSD Teacher Jail for alleged sexual harassment.

In just a couple of years, the agency was forced into a state audit that ultimately led to new policies, procedures, and rules to protect CB employees and ratepayers.

Despite that, it looks like 2013 is happening again.

At its last meeting, a new CB Water Board majority, led by Small-Time Mike Gualtieri, the GM of La Habra Heights Water, removed Art Chacon as president, and removed him from his Metropolitan Water District seat and MWD committees.

Gualtieri, who was the swing vote, joined Directors Leticia Vasquez-Wilson, Martha Camacho-Rodriguez, and Juan Garza. It was a 4-3 vote, exactly what happened in 2013 when Vasquez, Roybal, and Apodaca removed Chacon as president and pulled away his MWD seat.

No reasons were given for this latest removal….. that’s because there was none.

Chacon, CB GM Alex Rojas, and Chacon’s board allies NOT named Gualtieri, Vazquez, Rodriguez, or Garza, have guided a turnaround that saw the agency earn record profits and earn a seat on the Executive Committee of the Metropolitan Water District Board, one of the highest honors Chacon’s MWD colleagues can bestow.

Chacon was also appointed to other key committees, strong evidence that the MWD trusted the current CB management that has been guiding the agency for few years. The appointment placed the agency in a beneficial position to advocate for resources on behalf of CB and the water purveyors the agency serves.

Yet Gualtieri, Garza, Vazquez and Rodriguez voted to remove Chacon, which will erase all the goodwill built up and could cost CB millions in potential grants.

Like two impudent school kids, Gualtieri and Garza will now nominate each other to CB’s MWD seats at the upcoming February 7 special meeting, much like Vasquez and her crew did after removing Chacon in 2013.

And, in the same vein as Vasquez and Roybal, Gualtieri and Garza will bring serious conduct issues with them that will not be viewed kindly by other MWD Board Members.

Case in point: Gualtieri recently voted NO to recognize Juneteenth, a federal holiday, as a CB holiday. Juneteenth is a holiday in the United States commemorating the end of slavery; the holiday is considered the longest-running African-American holiday and has been called America’s second Independence Day.

Emboldened by his new position, Gualtieri, as president, immediately alienated CB employees, several of whom are African-American, yelling at the meeting, “Employees can’t even get their work done now, why should we give them another holiday.”

Peter Principle

Small-Time ⁠Gualtieri was appointed to his CB seat to represent the smallest water systems and, according to sources, lacks the basic technical knowledge to run an agency the size of CB. He is largely unknown in water circles and, with his alignment with Garza, Vasquez, and Rodriguez months ago, is not well-liked by the local water purveyors who appointed him.

As GM of La Habra Heights Water, Small-Time Gualtieri manages a meager $5.8 million in annual revenues; CB’s revenues are $25 million. 

Online financials show that Small-Time lost money at La Habra Water big-time in 2023, which is akin to a casino losing money; worse, expenses ballooned by nearly 14% in 2023.

Finally, in a move sure to anger CB ratepayers, Small-Times has advocated for increasing CB water rates and is the first appointed purveyor to demand to get paid for CB-related meetings, something other appointed CB purveyors never took out of deference to their cost-cutting at the agency.

Harassing the General Manager

Appointed by Chacon, Juan Garza, like Vasquez in 2013, had serious issues that only came to light after readers began sending LCCN information about Garza.

In July 2023, LCCN reported that Garza used a questionable report to try and fire CB GM Alex Rojas, a report blasted as severely lacking by an L.A. Superior Court judge; the lawsuit that used the report as evidence was dismissed. 

Based on the report, Garza teamed up with Vasquez and Rodriguez and called for a special meeting.

But the firing was virtually impossible and reeked of harassment; the legislative bill authored after a State 2015 audit mandated protection requiring a 4/5ths vote to remove the GM. There are seven members; six of the seven need to vote yes to fire GM Rojas.

In an ironic twist, the mandate stemmed from the many times the CB Board, led by Leticia Vasquez, James Roybal, and others, fired the GM and installed a crony GM, similar to what they’re trying now.

The last time they did that was when they fired Tony Perez and appointed Kevin Hunt. Hunt is now suing CB.

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Handing out No-Bid Contracts

In early October 2023, LCCN was informed and found that Garza, as Executive Director of California Cities for Self-Reliance (CSR), a joint powers authority that advocates for So Cal. Cardrooms, was handing out lucrative no-bid CSR contracts without sending out Requests for Proposals.

Garza’s actions were similar to some of the same issues found after the 2015 CB audit; the District has since corrected those issues.

LCCN found that Garza had not sent out a bid for CSR’s current lobbyist contract for at least two years, worth $80,000 annually. 

The contract was with the Sacramento-based California Advocacy, LLC, the same firm Garza tried to unlawfully coerce GM Rojas to retain in July 2023, directly violating CB Board Policy.

In addition, Garza knew Marvin Pineda, the owner of California Advocacy.

GM Rojas went on the record with LCCN confirming Garza’s unlawful maneuver to force the hiring of California Advocacy as CB’s lobbying firm. LCCN was told another CB Board member was present.

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Sham Investigation and Interference

Later in October 2023, the three recruited Gualtieri who voted for an investigation into a CB vendor called Capstone. Vasquez and her husband claim there was “major fraud related to Capstone and we have the checks to prove it,” but several requests for the checks or any proof by LCCN have gone unanswered.

Despite the apparent lack of evidence, the four voted to send out a RFQ.

To prevent any possible undue influence, conflicts of interest, and corruption, most public agencies, CB included, prohibit prior contact with any firm that has responded to an RFQ.

But that is not what happened with Garza and San Francisco-based Renne Public Law Group (RPLG), selected by CB to present its qualifications to the board on September 29.

Through a public records request, LCCN obtained documents that showed an employee of Renne Public Policy Group (RPPG), a subsidiary of RPLG, fielded a call from Garza just hours before RPLG was set to present its qualifications to the CB’s Board of Directors.

Garza did not inform anyone at CB about the call before, during, or after RPLG’s presentation.

Garza’s cover-up of the call was a direct violation of the Central Basin Administrative Code, which changed after the 2015 state audit revealed several conflicts of interest between vendors and board members….. similar to Garza’s interference.

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Never Paid His Business License

The next revelation was a real head-scratcher: Garza was Mayor of Bellflower, his consulting business is based at his home in Bellflower, yet LCCN was informed and documented in a published story that Garza had failed to pay a meager one-employee fee, around $200, for a business license in Bellflower for three years, jilting taxpaying residents in his home town.

This while he claims to make $100,000-$1 million on his Statement of Economic Interest Form 700.

A check on Bellflower’s website reveals Garza’s company, Six Heron LLC, remains unlicensed.

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Worked With La Luz Del Mundo

The latest revelation came after LCCN’s routine check of all CB Director’s Statement of Economic Interest Form 700.

Simply stated, the intent of Form 700 is to prohibit public officials, officers, and employees from engaging in a contract in which he or she has a financial interest in both a governmental and personal capacity.

The routine check of Garza’s Incoming Office Form 700 found an extremely disturbing business relationship.

As required by law, Garza listed several organizations he is doing business with that paid him more than $10,000 annually.

Garza listed La Luz Del Mundo (La Luz) as a client, the mega-church whose leader pled guilty to sex trafficking and heinous sexual acts with minors in June 2022; additional sex charges were filed in October 2023.

Despite the charges, Garza admitted to LCCN that “due to a previous commitment,” he took La Luz on as a client with his private company Six-Heron after Garcia’s indictment and represented the church during the height of felony sex charges proceedings from January 2021 to March 2022.

But it got murkier for Garza; a closer examination showed that Garza may have attempted to hide the fact that La Luz was his client on a 2022 SEI.

On Garza’s Candidate SEI filed in August 2022 with the city of Bellflower, Garza did not list La Luz as a client of his company Six-Heron.

When asked about the omission, Garza told LCCN, “My non-inclusion of La Luz Del Mundo as a client of my firm in my candidate FPPC form 700 submitted to the [Bellflower] city clerk on August 6, 2022, was an unintentional error, thank you [LCCN] for bringing that to my attention…..it should have been included and that’s an unintentional error on my part.”

But was it “unintentional?” On Garza’s 2021 SEI, LCCN found that La Luz was once again not listed.

When asked about the second omission, Garza described an odd business relationship. He said he worked for La Luz for the entire year in 2021 but got paid more working for only three months in 2022, completing his work with the church just three months before Garcia pleaded guilty.

In his statement, Garza indicated that, during the height of felony sex charges proceedings involving Garcia, he met with La Luz church leadership, and they “increased his compensation.”

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Ball is in MWD’s Court

Will the MWD board look past these issues? Can the MWD Board leadership put someone who voted “NO” to recognize Juneteenth at CB and another who contracted with a company whose leader was a convicted sex offender into any MWD leadership positions or committees?

After unceremoniously removing Chacon at their last meeting, Gualtieri and Garza are nominating each other for MWD seats at this Wednesday’s CB meeting.

Stay tuned.