Setting the Record Straight: “These Two Secretaries Blew the Whistle on Suspected Corruption in Rialto Water District” by Joe Nelson and Scott Schwebke for The San Bernardino Sun on 2/14/2020

 

The West Valley Water District is improving transparency and accountability via livestreaming of board meetings, conducting public reviews of Water District contracts and building an improved human resources department. Instead of reporting on some of these new efforts to rebuild public trust, writers Joe Nelson and Scott Schwebke with the Southern California News Group composed an article based on year-old allegations dismissed on February 10 by a Judge who noted that the allegations were “a smear campaign.”

 

Paragraph 1: Crystal Escalera felt both a sense of duty and trepidation as she typed out a four-page letter to the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office detailing the alleged misdeeds of her boss, General Manager Clarence Mansell Jr., and other officials at the embattled West Valley Water District in Rialto.

 

Nelson and Schwebke attempt to grab readers’ attention through a leading statement, saying that an employee “felt both a sense of duty and trepidation”—while also burying an important fact—that this letter is over a year old—in the second paragraph. Evoking reader outrage from year-old allegations that have since been dismissed is a tactic best left to personal blogs or political campaigns, not respected publications.

 

Furthermore, the West Valley Water District never received this letter and this employee never filed a complaint with the Water District’s human resources manager, legal counsel or sent a letter to the board. In fact, over a year has passed without further communications from the employee or further inquiries from the district attorney. Given that the district attorney’s office took no action in response to this letter, it is expected that the district attorney’s office found the letter and its claims to be unwarranted.

 

Paragraph 3: Her letter and another strikingly similar complaint to prosecutors from former Water District board Assistant Secretary Patricia Romero echos allegations from 16 Water District managers who issued a no-confidence letter in December demanding that Mansell be fired for dishonesty and cronyism. Dozens of personnel complaints, some of which detail similar allegations, have been filed with the district since Mansell took the helm in July 2018.

 

The age of both sets of allegations demonstrate that Nelson and Schwebke truly are grasping at straws. Tying stale allegations to three-month old complaints that the new board has already acted upon doesn’t make this piece “current.”

 

Paragraph 4: The D.A’s Office has neither confirmed nor denied receipt of the letters from Romero and Escalera, nor whether it is actively investigating. Romero included Escalera’s letter in a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in September 2019.

 

The district attorney’s office is not required to respond to media requests and usually does not, as a matter of policy.

 

Paragraph 5: “Any complaints regarding allegations or improprieties by public entities are investigated by our public integrity unit, for consideration of the filing of criminal charges, if warranted,” office spokesman Michael Bires said in an email. “For the protection of all parties involved, we are unable to comment on the status of an investigation, as well as whether or not we have received any complaints.”

 

Nelson and Schwebke falsely portray the district attorney office’s response as nefarious, when this is their standard response to all inquiries.

 

Paragraph 6: Romero said she has never been interviewed by an investigator or prosecutor at the D.A.’s Office regarding her complaint.

 

The D.A.’s office investigates allegations and claims that they believe have merit. All such claims are investigated.

 

Paragraph 7: The letters obtained by the Southern California News Group provide the first glimpse into the origins of a February 2019 lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court by Romero, board member Clifford Young, and former Water District Chief Financial Officer Naisha Davis against Robert Tafoya, the district’s general counsel, and other attorneys and consultants working for the district.

 

This case was dismissed on February 10 by a Judge who noted the allegations were “nothing more than a smear campaign.” Allegations without time, place, who and what should not be published in a local paper of record. The court’s judgment is included here.

 

Paragraph 10: Alleged co-conspirators in the case include Mansell; Michael Taylor, a retired Baldwin Park police chief who serves on the Water District board; former Assistant General Manager and Baldwin Park Councilman Ricardo Pacheco; and board member and Fontana school police Officer Kyle Crowther.

 

This case was dismissed and this is inaccurate. The courts have found that there is no credible evidence to support any of these allegations. Nelson and Schwebke failed to mention that the Judge denied an amendment to add Taylor and Crowther as defendants and Mansell was never added.

 

Paragraph 11: Although Escalera is not a plaintiff in any lawsuits against the district, her letter outlines a timeline of alleged suspicious activities involving Mansell, his executive assistant, Melissa Blount, and Pacheco, along with alleged intimidation and harassment by Taylor.

 

The Water District is not in receipt of this letter. Romero’s letter, which the Water District did receive, does not allege any suspicious activities for Mansell. Nelson and Schwebke seem to have been confused by the existence of two, separate letters from two different Water District secretaries, and fail to distinguish between the two.  This failure to distinguish is yet another instance of Nelson and Schwebke’s failure to accurately report.

 

Paragraph 12: Mansell, Blount, Pacheco and Taylor did not respond to requests for comment. Tafoya said in an email the district has not been contacted by the District Attorney’s Office or any other law enforcement agency regarding hiring decisions or improper handling of contracts.

 

The West Valley Water District has clear protocols for media requests, which Nelson and Schwebke have been made well aware of several times. Public Affairs Manager Naseem Farooqi is the media’s point of contact for all comment and information requests, not staff. Knowing this, Nelson and Schwebke continue to break protocol knowing it would result in no response.

 

Paragraph 13: Escalera declined to discuss her letter to the D.A.’s Office or comment for this story, but her writings indicate that soon after Mansell became interim general manager in 2018, the district began generating consultant contracts at an alarming rate, raising suspicions of cronyism.

 

In 2018, Mansell was authorized by the then-president to issue a series of contracts to conduct an assessment of the district and acted in accordance with the board’s wishes.  After elections in November 2019, the West Valley Water District’s first action under new leadership was to publicly scrutinize and question every contract in three livestreamed, public board meetings. The WVWD takes allegations of cronyism seriously, and, in addition to holding public contracts hearings, has also hired an outside human resources manager to verify the integrity of present and future conduct.

 

Paragraph 14: “The majority of these consultant contracts are for friends, former co-workers, or affiliates of Baldwin Park,” says the letter addressed to the D.A.’s Public Integrity Unit. “I fear these contracts will deplete the district’s $50 million reserve fund, put the district in financial jeopardy and cause distrust of the public.

 

The West Valley Water District  does not have this letter or the stated allegations, so it cannot respond to these statements without the context of the full letter.

 

Paragraph 16: Escalera singled out Mansell, Taylor, Pacheco, Tafoya and Blount as allegedly involved in the “misallocation scheme.”  Blount, hired by the district in August 2018 at $41.01 an hour, previously worked with Mansell at Veolia North America, which provides drinking water and wastewater treatment services for the city of Rialto.

 

Blount was hired in accordance with the WVWD’s hiring guidelines, and with the board’s approval.  Given her prior experience in wastewater treatment services, Blount was a natural choice for the job.

 

Paragraph 17: On Blount’s first day of work at West Valley, Mansell told her to report to the purchasing department and instructed staff to train her how to write contracts, process invoices and handle accounts receivable, Escalera’s letter says. Davis, the district’s CFO, became aware of the situation only when the purchasing staff notified her Mansell had requested unlimited access to the district’s accounting system. She confronted him during an executive staff meeting a week later.

 

With the purchasing department short by two staff, the department was in serious need of support; it was Davis who requested the additional help. Blount, who already had purchasing experience from her prior employment, was the most logical fit, and only needed to learn how to use the district’s purchasing software before seamlessly getting to work.

 

Paragraph 18: “Ms. Davis openly expressed her concerns of having an executive assistant have the same financial access as the chief financial officer ” and made Mr. Mansell aware that this decision was a violation of internal controls that may be an issue in our next audit,” Escalera wrote. However, Mr. Mansell told her that this was “the new process” and that “as the GM, I can make that change.”

 

Blount did not have the same access controls that Davis had. Access to viewing district finances was necessary for Blount to carry out her role as both executive assistant and aide for the purchasing department. She did not write contracts and was not instructed to generate new consultant contracts. Like many assistants in any organization, Blount was provided access to provide administrative support to managers, leadership and the Board of Directors.

 

Paragraph 21: The Board of Directors is required to vote on all contracts over $25,000, while Mansell has authority to approve and sign contracts below that amount without board approval. No-bid contracts issued by the district have become a primary source of complaints by district employees, management and board members, and also have come under scrutiny by local and state auditors.

 

The current board has increased scrutiny to ensure that all contracts have deliverables, scope of services and timetables. Furthermore, during the December 16, 2019 board meeting, President Hawkins prohibited the general manager from authorizing any new contracts without his express approval. Prior to this, in November 2018, the Water District recognized that problems could exist in the absence of a Chief Financial Officers’ Policies and Procedures Manual that puts strong internal controls in place so hired MV Cheng and Associates to assess this issue. The PUN Group audit confirmed MV Cheng’s findings and the Water District has developed a plan to implement the much-needed changes.

 

Paragraph 22: Mansell instructed Blount to generate all new consultant contracts following her training in the purchasing department, Escalera said in her letter to the D.A.’s Office. “I witnessed consultants beginning work and receiving payment before a contract was fully executed. Insurance requirements were also waived for several consultants that were friends,” she wrote.

 

Solo practitioners, to whom workers’ compensation insurance and other insurance requirements were inapplicable, did receive insurance waivers. Workers’ compensation insurance and other insurance requirements that are inapplicable to solo practitioners are not a requirement of the district.

 

Paragraph 23: Mansell then removed the contracts from the purchasing department and filed them in Escalera’s office. “I am instructed to allow the chief financial officer to look at the files in my presence, but the contracts are not to leave my office,” Escalera said in the letter. “In contrast, Ms. Blount continues to take contracts that were complete from my office back to her office for review. This makes me uneasy and only later did I realize that changes were being made during this time.”

 

As a public entity the WVWD is 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 24: Escalera said she confirmed with Tafoya, the Water District’s lawyer, that he had not reviewed all of the contracts she had been asked to sign despite assurances to the contrary from Mansell. “I told Ms. Blount that I was not comfortable signing any more contracts without legal counsel’s signature after speaking to Mr. Tafoya,” she wrote.

 

The general counsel reviews every contract the Water District provides and signs them. This conversation did not occur.

 

Paragraph 25: Escalera said it also appeared signature pages were being extracted from previously signed contracts and inserted into revised ones.

 

The West Valley Water District welcomes any complaints about past and present contracts and will conduct a full investigation if given the names and dates of the relevant contracts. According to the Water District’s grievance procedure, employees should report issues either to direct superiors—in this case, the board—or if they do not feel comfortable doing so, report grievances to the human resources department.

 

Paragraph 26: Additionally, she said, Pacheco requested that a check be issued to consultant Daniel Rodriguez for work completed before an agreement was even in place.

 

Davis, the Water District’s former Chief Financial Officer whose lawsuit is mentioned in this article, held responsibility for issuing and paying invoices, and ensuring that all vendors had contracts. Under Davis, that responsibility was not properly exercised, and it was common practice that invoices were paid without vendor files being properly created or updated. Corrective actions have since been taken, and purchasing power has been transferred from Davis to John Stevenson.

 

Paragraph 27: “That is a clear violation of district policy,” she wrote wrote to the D.A.’s Office. “I have not personally seen any work product produced by Mr. Rodriguez nor has any other executive manager at West Valley Water District.”

 

Escalera was not Rodriguez’ project manager, and thus did not have access to his project reports or work product. Rodriguez provided written documentation to the district for his work, which Mansell asserts has satisfied all district requirements.

 

Paragraph 30: Clifford Young began to see contracts stacked in Escalera’s office and asked during a November 2018 board meeting for all consultant agreements signed by Mansell. Escalera provided the contracts to Young and then, on Dec. 15, 2018, a few minutes before midnight, received a terse, unnerving phone call from Taylor, who at the time was president of the board, that left her shaken.

 

This passage follows other information from a defeated lawsuit, year-old allegations and hearsay complaints from 2018.  Director Young personally authorized Mansell to issue the professional services agreements and centralize their storage for safekeeping in this office.

 

Paragraph 32: Escalera said the intimidation became even more profound on Dec 17, 2018, when Mansell told her that Romero would be moved to the district’s Customer Service Department. The letter alleges Mansell confided in Escalera that Taylor was not comfortable with Romero having access to documents and information, adding her transfer was a political decision.

 

The allegations of intimidation are nothing more than hearsay. As to the reason for Romero’s transfer, the board did not require two full-time secretaries; there was not enough work in the office for two people. Because Romero was not being fully utilized, the Water District could have either let her go or transferred her to another department where her skills were needed. Recognizing her steadfast service to the Water District, the board decided that she be transferred, not fired.

 

Paragraph 35: “From October 2018 through December 2018 there has been approximately 23 contracts drafted and executed by the Executive Assistant Melissa Blount, GM Clarence Mansell, Legal (Counsel) Robert Tafoya averaging to the amount of $300,000,” Romero said in the three-page letter. “Ms. Blount has been under the complete direction of (Mansell) and continues to produce contracts for plans unknown.”

 

This statement is completely false. Every contract over $25,000 is signed by the board, the general manager and counsel. No contracts may be completed at the sole discretion of the general manager unless they are under $25,000. Furthermore, even though not required to do so, the general manager still sought and received board member approval for all contracts under $25,000. As to contracts “averaging to the amount of $300,000,” each was voted on and approved by the board, details for which can be found in the public board minutes listed on the Water District’s website.

 

Paragraph 38: Romero also contends district officials are robbing employees of their “First Amendment right to free speech” by prohibiting them from talking to the news media.

 

Large organizations, whether public or private, have communication protocols meant to protect both the organization and employees from misinformation and harassment by the press.

 

Paragraph 39: “Employees are being isolated and singled out. Employees are being intimated and stricken with fear. This needs to be corrected and the public needs to be aware of the situation,” Romero said.

 

Romero’s allegations are heresay.  The district attorney’s office never followed up with the Water District and likely dismissed Romero’s complaints.

 

Paragraph 50: Board members recently stripped Mansell of his responsibility for all hirings, promotions, job recruitment, internal transfers and performance evaluations, assigning those tasks to a new interim human resources manager. Additionally, the district began live streaming public meetings on Facebook and YouTube in the interest of accountability and transparency.

 

The most important detail of this piece, that Mansell was “strippedof his responsibility” for all personnel decisions, is buried in one of the final paragraphs of the article. Clearly the Water District is taking steps to ensure that decision making and accountability is spread across multiple personnel to reduce the potential for conflicts of interest or cronyism. We appreciate that Nelson and Schwebke make cursory notice of the Water District’s reform efforts, but despair that they do not mention our progress until nearly the end of a 2,300 word article that few readers may finish.