Setting the Record Straight: “Former CFO Sues Embattled Rialto Water District a Second Time” by Joe Nelson for The San Bernardino Sun on 1/22/2020

 

Just as with the previous piece on January 15, this article makes use of a spurious source and hearsay to condemn the West Valley Water District (WVWD); a lawsuit by an unqualified former employee who was central in WVWD’s financial mismanagement should not qualify as a reputable source. After current Board President Channing Hawkins was sworn in as leader of the WVWD in November of 2019, the first board meetings involved publicly reviewing all existing services contracts at three open board sessions, which this reporter attended but makes no note of. Below are WVWD’s corrections regarding the January 22 article written by Nelson and published by The San Bernardino Sun.

 

Paragraph 1: The former chief financial officer at the embattled West Valley Water District in Rialto has filed a lawsuit against the district alleging sexual harassment, racial discrimination and whistleblower retaliation.

 

The WVWD takes allegations of sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and whistleblower retaliation seriously, and has both the means and will to ensure that its employees are treated fairly by the Water District during their time with us. The individual did not submit any of these allegations prior to her termination so that the WVWD could take investigative or corrective action.

 

Paragraph 2: In her suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Jan 17, Naisha Davis names as defendants West Valley Water District General Counsel Robert Tafoya and General Manager Clarence Mansell Jr. Davis, a certified public accountant who holds a master’s degree in accounting, worked for the district for 11 months before she was fired in March 2019 for what she alleges was questioning the district’s fiscal practices, mainly those involving consultant contracts.

 

Davis was terminated during her probationary period, during which she could have been dismissed for any reason or no reason at all. The WVWD maintains that Davis was not qualified to hold her position as Chief Financial Officer, had no experience either in water or government accounting and had limited accounting experience from her time at a non-profit. In addition to her lack of experience and ability to get her job done, Davis left a trail of fiduciary devastation the district is still struggling to recover from. Publicizing undelivered and unsubstantiated lawsuits without recognizing the full set of facts is poor reporting by Nelson that completely misinforms readers and ratepayers.

 

Paragraph 3: Davis also is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in February 2019 alleging Tafoya and several other attorneys and consultants contracted by the district engaged in bribery. It alleges a conspiracy to grant professional services contracts in exchange for bribes and kickbacks. That lawsuit is ongoing.

 

The results of a pending state audit will soon be available to the Water District and the public, and the WVWD eagerly awaits using the findings to improve transparency and accountability for current and future contracts. A previous audit, reported upon on by Schwebke and Nelson on October 14, 2019, noted that the Water District’s hiring of unqualified individuals, like Davis, and Davis’ unilateral financial authority were key drivers of the Water District’s earlier distress.

 

Paragraph 4: Davis alleges in her latest lawsuit that she was stripped of her ability to closely scrutinize vendor contracts in a “blatant attempt to cover up improper self-dealing and mismanagement” at the district, including Mansell’s approval of purchase order contracts “in furtherance of a kickback/bribery scheme orchestrated by Tafoya,” according to the lawsuit.

 

Davis never raised these issues with the board, never filed any such complaints during her time at WVWD and filed this lawsuit over a year after her dismissal. The WVWD would also like to note that new review processes have made the alleged actions nearly impossible.

 

Paragraph 5: Tafoya and Mansell prohibited Davis from accessing consultant contracts, moving some to unknown whereabouts accessible only to Mansell or his personal secretary, and some to board secretary Crystal Escalera’s office. Previously, the district kept copies of contracts housed in the purchasing department, and Davis was able to review the contracts without issue, according to the lawsuit.

 

The WVWD maintains that Davis always had full access to contracts. As a public entity we are unable to withhold access to anyone, especially our own employees. Should any members of the public wish to review these contracts, they may use the California Public Records Act to file an information request.

 

Paragraph 6: Questionable hiring practices, no-bid contracts, and vendors billing the district for amounts that far exceeded the $25,000 limit set by their purchase order contracts were among the key issues presented by auditors from the State Controller’s Office and The PUN Group of Santa Ana. The state controller’s audit is ongoing and expected to wrap up in the spring.

 

The Pun Group audit was self-imposed and ordered by the Water District to help highlight and fix prior issues. Interestingly, Nelson never asked the Water District its response to the audits. The current hiring freeze was the direct result of this audit and it is also why WVWD has hired a new human resources director with government-related human resources experience who will help ensure we adhere to best practices. The audit also led the Water District to change purchasing, travel and expense policies and implement a new financial management system.

 

Paragraph 7: Davis also alleges Mansell made “unwelcome sexually charged” comments to her, such as telling her she was “very striking” and “very beautiful” on several occasions. Mansell’s perception of Davis then quickly changed, according to the lawsuit, referring to her as “too aggressive” and “using the negative stereotype so frequently assigned to black women.”

 

It should be noted that both the lawsuit and article lack corroborating details.

 

Paragraph 10:  The district did not investigate Davis’ complaint about Mansell’s “unlawful treatment” toward her, and instead the focus was shifted onto her, putting her under extreme stress that prompted her to take a medical leave in January 2019, according to the lawsuit.

 

The WVWD sympathizes with Davis, who was grossly unqualified for the role and struggling to fulfill her duties. It is not surprising that the vast gap between her skills and those demanded by her position created significant stress. The Water District’s current hiring freeze, implemented by the new administration in December 2019, aims to prevent such issues from happening again. During this time, the WVWD will strengthen hiring policies outlined in the human resources handbook, which include a competitive application process, verification of applicants’ education and skills, and background checks.

 

Paragraph 12: Tafoya issued the following statement late Wednesday night: “The West Valley Water District has not been served with the Naisha Davis Complaint. Naisha Davis has not worked for the WVWD for since March 7, 2019, did not pass probation and was terminated from the District. Once the WVWD gets served, it will review the Complaint and take appropriate action.”

 

The WVWD strives to be transparent and honest, and welcomes any opportunity for comment. However, being judicious and complete in its responses requires the Water District to have examined the allegations against it. The Water District was not served until January 29, a week after this article was published. These allegations were written as fact, and publishing an article in the name of expediency before the Water District had even been served is unethical. Furthermore, the reporter for this article, Joe Nelson, demanded comment on three separate items within a single day. Under these short deadlines, and without having received the complaint itself, Water District personnel did not have ample time to investigate or provide measured responses.

 

Paragraph 13: The Water District, which serves about 82,000 customers in Bloomington, Colton, Fontana, Rialto, unincorporated areas of San Bernardino County, and Jurupa Valley in Riverside County, has doled out about $734,000 in the past three years to settle lawsuits filed by employees who claim they were unjustly fired, according to records obtained by the Southern California News Group.

 

We appreciate reporting on the prior administration, but regret that this reporter found it not worth reader’s time to share the vast improvements made in transparency and accountability since WVWD’s new board was elected in November of 2019. One of the first initiatives of 2020 included publicly reviewing all existing professional services contracts at three open board sessions held on January 9 and January 25. In these meetings, all contracts were examined for the following:

 

-How the consultant was selected

 

-The qualifications of the consultant for the contract

 

-The scope of the work for the contract

 

-Proof of completed work for the contract

 

-Disbursements made for the contract

 

-Completion date and final costs for the contract

 

These meetings served to bring all of the Water District’s current contracts to light and give ratepayers the opportunity to see which contracts were appropriate and valuable. By providing comment to reporters and conducting this review openly and in public, the West Valley Water District hoped to prove to the community that its new leadership is committed to transparency, accountability, and regaining public trust. Neglecting to mention these proceedings, which Nelson attended, suggests that Nelson’s interest is not in providing facts but manufacturing controversy and eroding public trust simply to grow his personal audience. Whatever Nelson’s personal reasons, the public deserves the full, accurate picture.