Setting the Record Straight: “Embattled Rialto Water District Awards Contracts to Friends of Board President” by Joe Nelson and Scott Schwebke for The San Bernardino Sun on 2/28/2020

 

This article contains several contradictions, misreported facts and erroneous details. Hawkins attended Howard University, the same University as Diggs and Chamberlayne and more than 40 percent of black congressmen, 50 percent of black lawyers and 80 percent of black judges.  Nonetheless, during a public board meeting, West Valley Water District (WVWD) Board President Channing Hawkins fully disclosed  such connection to Rodney Diggs of Ivie McNeill & Wyatt (IMW) and Charles Chamberlayne of ChamberlaynePR, and both contracts were reviewed and approved by the Board of Directors (during which votes Hawkins abstained). During the ChamberlaynePR contract board hearing, members of the board shared no concerns about and unanimously approved the Chamberlayne contract, and during the IMW hearing, Hawkins even went so far as to recommend against hiring IMW to avoid any appearance of impropriety. Instead of accepting these facts, Nelson and Schwebke falsely indicate nefarious, improper behavior.

 

Paragraph 1: The West Valley Water District has awarded contracts to friends of newly elected board President Channing Hawkins despite his vows to restore public trust in an agency stained with longstanding allegations of cronyism.

 

All new contracts since new leadership was elected in November have required that board members publicly disclose any and all connections to potential contractors and that the Water District establish a clear scope of work, statement of qualifications, caps on contract amounts and only select fiscally responsible options.  The aforementioned contracts met all of the WVWD’s requirements, and Hawkins ultimately abstained from the vote with regard to both contracts.

Furthermore, to restore public trust, WVWD initiated a hiring freeze, conducted a review of all contracts at a series of public hearings, hired a new human resources manager to rebuild a professional workplace culture, selected Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, California’s premier labor and employment law firm for municipalities, to rewrite the Water District’s human resources handbook and has posted all board meeting minutes and livestreams online.

 

Paragraph 2: Since Hawkins was sworn in Dec. 6, two of his friends and their businesses — Rodney Diggs at the law firm Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt and Charles Chamberlayne of the public relations firm ChamberlaynePR — have landed contracts with the Rialto-based Water District. Hawkins has been friends with the two men since their days together at Howard University, a prestigious, private black college in Washington, D.C.

 

As reported earlier by The San Bernardino Sun in a January 10 article, Hawkins fully publicly disclosed his Howard University connection to Chamberlayne to the board, which raised zero questions or complaints about the contract with ChamberlaynePR when the contract was presented to the board and the public. Also  Hawkins abstained and did not participate in the discussion for the contract. IMW was selected by other board members as the most fiscally responsible option, and hired at a rate of $250 per hour, the lowest rate paid by the Water District; IMW’s contract is at a 37.5% discount over the average $400 per hour paid by other regional Water Districts to similar firms.

 

The Water District’s full statement to Nelson on IMW’s hiring was as follows: “During the closed session, each board member suggested several potential law firms and some board members proposed multiple law firms. WVWD legal counsel initially recommended IMW and board member Clifford Young made the motion to retain it. When the item was presented, President Channing Hawkins objected and removed himself from the discussion. This action by President Hawkins to remove himself and not participate in the discussion was in conformance with all applicable guidelines for abstaining identified in the Institute for Local Government guidelines. Abstention and disclosure of interests is common practice for officers involved with any public entity. The motion passed with three in favor (Crowther, Taylor, Clifford Young), no votes against and two abstentions (Hawkins and Greg Young).”

 

Paragraph 3: Additionally, Diggs and his Los Angeles law firm each contributed $1,000 to Hawkins’ campaign for the board of directors, and Chamberlayne gave $100, according to campaign finance reports.

 

According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, 40 percent of black congressmen, 50 percent of black lawyers, and 80 percent of black judges graduated from historically black colleges and universities, of which Howard University is one of the largest and best known. Howard produces more black doctorates than any other university in the United States, and maintains its excellent professional reputation through the integrity of its admissions process and the fine work of its graduates. Given the still-limited number of black professionals, accusations of impropriety based on familiarity lack any real credence. If Hawkins had attended Harvard University and selected other Harvard classmates for Water District contracts, there would be no question of his choice, and the same should apply to the distinguished graduates of Howard University, among whom are foreign heads of state, U.S. governors, senators, diplomats, congresspeople and the first black Supreme Court justice. It should also be noted at this time that many reporters and staff at The Sun attended California State University, Fullerton; should mutual attendance have disqualified these otherwise qualified individuals from their current employment?

 

Paragraph 4: Diggs will represent West Valley in a lawsuit filed by former Chief Financial Officer Naisha Davis, her second against the district in the past year. In addition, he will defend the district against a complaint filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by General Manager Clarence Mansell Jr. The allegations in Mansell’s complaint are confidential and have not been disclosed.

 

Nelson himself reported that a Judge dismissed the most recent case against the Water District on February 10; the Judge having called the allegations “a smear campaign.” However, in an effort to bolster his own story Nelson now highlights this lawsuit as if it had not been dismissed so as to manufacture controversy.

 

Paragraph 5: The contract with San Diego-based Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt was approved Feb. 6 in a closed session of the Water District’s board. Diggs, a partner at IMW, will be paid $250 an hour for his services, $150 less than what he typically charges and the lowest rate of any lawyer working for West Valley.

 

IMW is based out of Los Angeles, not San Diego. Furthermore, Nelson buries the fact that IMW is being paid at a significantly lower rate than other law firms. Many law firms customarily provide discounted rates to public agencies..

 

Paragraph 6: Before Hawkins took office, the district had been plagued with allegations of rampant cronyism involving new hires and professional services contracts purportedly awarded to friends, political allies or former colleagues of Mansell, board members and general counsel Robert Tafoya.

 

In his February 10 ruling, a Judge weighing these past allegations noted that they lacked any specifics—Nelson himself has cited this ruling. As all of this happened before Hawkins took office, the specifics of time, place, and amount are required for any newly unfounded allegations to serve as the basis for a real legal challenge.

 

Paragraph 7: In December, 16 West Valley managers signed a letter demanding that the Board of Directors fire Mansell partly due to, among other things, questionable contracts and his penchant for hiring employees who lacked qualifications and experience.

 

The Board found that the  contracts alleged in the letter were not initiated by Mansell and followed the Water District’s new procedures, which included public disclosures of relationships, required qualifications and scopes of work.  Such disclosures were made.

 

Paragraph 8: An ongoing Southern California News Group investigation has uncovered many problems during Mansell’s tenure, including the employment of consultants without contracts, hiring managers and consultants with dubious backgrounds and legal difficulties and spending more than $740,000 to settle lawsuits with disgruntled employees.

 

With $740,000 spent on settling lawsuits, would it not make the most sense to go with the firm that offers the lowest rates in defending municipalities? It should be noted that IMW also represents the State of California, City of Los Angeles, City of Inglewood, LA Unified School District and LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

 

Paragraph 9: During the Feb. 6 board meeting, Hawkins, after learning the Southern California News Group was preparing to report on the contracts to IMW and ChamberlaynePR, implied the issue was about race rather than perceived cronyism.

 

Hawkins never implied that the issue was race. However, in the interest of supporting Governor Newsom and the State of California’s goal of expanding diversity at “every level of state government,” the Water District is committed to improving all diversity amongst its contractors and staff. Sadly, the region is notorious for its “glass ceiling for black employees,” as reported by the Inland Empire Voice. The Water District hopes that it can continue to make strides in reversing this chronic issue.

 

Paragraph 10: “I find it offensive and hard to digest that anyone would suggest that a reputable, minority-owned enterprise did not earn this work based on their own expertise and body of work,” Hawkins said at the beginning of the meeting. “If this black-owned firm is good enough to represent the state of California, city of Los Angeles, city of Inglewood, L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, they should be good enough to represent West Valley Water District.”

 

Hawkins emphatically stands by his statement.

 

Paragraph 11: Board directors Clifford Young, Mike Taylor and Kyle Crowther voted to approved IMW’s contract, while Hawkins and Greg Young abstained. During the board’s Feb. 20 meeting, Greg Young said he abstained not because of the “great qualifications of the (law) firm,” but because of Hawkins’ “dealings with the firm.”

 

Hawkins announced his Howard University connection, abstained from discussion and the vote, and spoke out against hiring IMW in a closed session. This information was communicated to Nelson, who noted that “abstaining would be proper protocol, necessary and expected, but voicing opposition to IMW is totally different.” It is regrettable but understandable why Nelson decided not to disclose this detail, as it completely contradicts this narrative of cronyism.

 

Paragraph 12: In an email Monday, Young, who is no relation to board director Clifford Young, said Hawkins “strongly believed that we should not use a firm that had any ties to anyone in this case, but the other board members wanted to use the IMW firm.”

 

Despite having been told by both Hawkins and another independent source that Hawkins was against engagement of IMW, Nelson and Schwebke still write this story inferring nefarious dealings when none exist.

 

Paragraph 13: “He abstained and refused to participate in the debate,” Young said. “I agreed with him and also abstained on the vote.”

 

Nelson and Schwebke confirm that Hawkins abstained from the vote, repeatedly contradicting themselves by alternating between nebulous claims of cronyism and statements to the contrary.

 

Paragraph 14: Diggs said in an email to SCNG that neither his friendship with Hawkins nor his or IMW’s campaign contributions played a role in securing the West Valley contract.

 

Hawkins stands by this statement.

 

Paragraph 15: “IMW often supports people who run for public office based on their qualifications, integrity and connection to the community,” Diggs said in the email. “It is our understanding that we were selected in a competitive bidding process and Mr. Hawkins abstained from votes.”

 

As reported to Nelson, many firms were reviewed. Nelson’s own reporting proves that in a competitive bidding process, during which Hawkins recommended against IMW’s selection, IMW was chosen by a majority of the board as the most fiscally responsible and qualified choice.  Again, Hawkins abstained from that vote.

 

Paragraph 20: The Water District says IMW was selected after “multiple weeks of review of various law firms.” The district contacted the law firms, the names of which were not disclosed publicly, and each one bidding on the contract provided information for the board to review, district spokesman Naseem Farooqi said in an email.

 

The Water District stands by its statement and its selection of IMW. After a weekslong competitive, deliberate process, during which a number of qualified firms were reviewed, IMW was selected for its supreme qualifications, demonstrated skills, contributions to contractor diversity and low cost.

 

Paragraph 21: During the Feb. 6 board meeting, Hawkins said it had come to his attention that the Southern California News Group, specifically The Sun, was “attempting to make me look as though I influenced Dr. (Clifford) Young, Dr. Taylor, and Vice President Crowther to vote in favor for this contract.”

 

This article attempts to portray Hawkins in a negative light; however as stated by Nelson himself, the actions taken by Hawkins were “proper protocol, necessary and expected.”

 

Paragraph 22: But he stopped short of denying he influenced the vote, saying, “I’d like to thank Dr. Young, Dr. Taylor and Vice President Crowther for making diversity an important part of the board’s decision here.”

 

In an exchange with Nelson, Hawkins directly denied that he influenced the vote. Water District Director Clifford Young also noted that Hawkins recommended against IMW to avoid any potential claims of impropriety. In the face of evidence that includes statements from another board member, his own saved communications with Hawkins, and a Facebook Live recording of the meeting, Nelson and Schwebke somehow conclude to the contrary to fit the narrative of this story.

 

Paragraph 24: “The board voted in a majority to contract for their services in closed session. I abstained and did not participate in the discussion for the contract,” Hawkins said. “The board made a decision because of the qualifications of the firm and their particular expertise in dealing with employment, harassment, discrimination and wage matters.”

 

Hawkins stands by these demonstrated facts.

 

Paragraph 25: Tafoya, the Water District’s general counsel, not Hawkins, recommended the district contract with IMW, and board Director Clifford Young made the motion to contract with the firm.

 

The Water District confirms these facts.

 

Paragraph 26: On Dec. 16 —  just 11 days after Hawkins was sworn in — the district awarded a $23,000 no-bid public relations contract to the PR company run by Chamberlayne, another friend of Hawkins.

 

As reported earlier by The Sun in its January 10 article, Hawkins fully publicly disclosed his Howard University connection to Chamberlayne to the board, which raised zero questions or complaints about the contract with Chamberlayne PR when it was presented and unanimously approved.

In fact, the board welcomed the opportunity to contract with a celebrated communications professional whose portfolio includes serving a speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, three U.S. senators, and the mayor of the second largest city in California.

 

Paragraph 27: While Hawkins touted Chamberlayne’s 20-year career in the communications field, including working for a speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, three U.S. senators and the mayor of San Diego, ChamberlaynePR is a relatively new company, having started in 2016. Still, in its four-year history, the company has netted some notable clients, including UC San Diego and the MacArthur Foundation, according to the company website.

 

Given the qualifications of Chamberlayne and his firm, the relatively low dollar amount for the contract, Hawkins’ full disclosure of his Howard University connection to Chamberlayne before the board, and the lack of any complaints or further questions from the board at the time of the contract’s presentation and approval, Nelson and Schwebke’s  comment that the company is ‘relatively new’ is nothing more than a baseless attempt to discredit the qualified firm.

 

Paragraph 28: Just two years ago, however, Chamberlayne was swimming in debt and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in San Diego on Feb. 14, 2018, court records show.

 

The personal financial matters of a private citizen should not be the topic of Board conversation, much less the topic of qualified news reporting. This personal detail is irrelevant to ChamberlaynePR’s ability to serve the WVWD as a public relations firm. Instead, disclosing this detail speaks to a lack of professionalism and journalistic ethics of  the San Bernadino Sun, the Southern California News Group and specifically, of Joe Nelson. Nelson’s interest in sensationalizing personal information to substantiate his reporting, and the San Bernadino Sun’s tolerance of this behavior is an ethics violation. Accordingly, the Water District has asked to see The San Bernardino Sun‘s fairness and ethics standards three times, and is still yet to have been provided with such documentation either by The San Bernardino Sun or the Southern California News Group under which it operates. Not surprisingly, the links to the complete ethics and fairness standards are broken on every SCNG website.  More than days after the request, both news groups have yet to respond.

 

Paragraph 31: Board Director Greg Young said in his email he was never consulted on Chamberlayne’s contract until it was brought to his attention at the Jan. 9 board meeting.

 

Zero members opposed the contract at the time, and all voted to approve the contract after both Hawkins’ disclosure of his Howard University connection with Chamberlayne and abstention from the vote. Representatives from ChamberlaynePR also presented their qualifications to the Board who ultimately reviewed, voted and approved of the firm’s scope of work.

 

Paragraph 32: “While (Chamberlayne) has a strong background, I would have advised a different path had I been consulted,” Young said. “We need to avoid any appearance of continuing the use of anyone who has any ties to any board members or senior managers.”

 

Nelson himself reported on a lack of objections during the contract’s hearing.  As mentioned earlier, Hawkins ties to Chamberlayne are from attendance at the same University more than 20 years ago.

 

Paragraphs 33 and 34: No-bid contracts were a key issue of concern of The Pun Group, a Santa Ana-based accounting firm commissioned by the district to conduct an audit of the district’s internal controls for the period from July 2018 through January 2019. Among the audit’s key findings were no-bid contracts, approved by Mansell and not the board, that exceeded their amounts or had no caps placed on them. The district, according to the audit, did not have sufficient monitoring and risk assessment control to prevent unauthorized purchases and did not follow the district’s purchasing policy nor did it have adequate monitoring over its contract management.

 

This statement flies in the face of The San Bernardino Sun‘s own reporting that this contract had a statement of qualifications, clear and limited scope, a cap of $23,000, full disclosure of Hawkins’ Howard University connection with Chamberlayne to the board in the public meeting, and that zero board members or members of the public raised any concerns because of Chamberlayne’s outstanding qualifications and the transparency of the process by which his firm was selected.  This contract approval followed all proper protocols as can be seen during the live stream of the Board meeting; any allegations to the contrary are false.

 

Paragraph 35: Although he reportedly advised against retaining IMW during the board’s Feb. 6 closed session, Hawkins advocates for district contracts with more “minority-owned” companies.

 

As of 2018, 85% of Water District constituents were minorities, and the Water District remains a designated underserved community. In light of these facts and new initiatives by Governor Newsom and the state of California to expand diversity at “every level of state government,” the West Valley Water District will continue to ensure that minority populations, whether so by race, sexuality, or gender, will be able to have equal access to employment with the Water District.

 

Paragraph 37: He said the district’s Board of Directors remains committed to diversity and proving opportunities for minority-owned firms that “look a lot like the constituents in my district.” Hawkins called IMW “the most preeminent black law firm in Southern California.”

 

The West Valley Water District believes in the necessity of opening up opportunities to people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds.

 

Paragraph 38: The Water District provides water to roughly 82,000 customers in Rialto, Bloomington, Colton, Fontana and Jurupa Valley in Riverside County. More than 70 percent of the population in those cities and unincorporated areas, with the exception of Colton, are Latino, according to U.S. census data.

 

The West Valley Water District is proud to serve such a diverse community and will continue to make great leaps forward in ensuring that the district and its contractors continue to grow more representative of the communities they serve.