By Mark Gutglueck
(February 27) An involved contretemps has manifested at the Victor Valley Water Reclamation Agency amid labor agitation/union formation efforts as well as a-yet-unresolved claim by a staffing company that the agency underpaid its workers, against a backdrop of political intrigue relating to the principals involved.
Featured as main players in the drama are former Victorville Councilwoman Angela Valles, incumbent First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood and former Hesperia councilwoman Diana Carloni-Nourse.
Highlighted prominently in the controversy is what is described by a multiplicity of former Victor Valley Water Reclamation Authority (VVWRA) employees as Valles’ unsuitability for the position she holds at VVWRA. In that capacity, according to at least six employees who have left the agency over the last several years, Valles has been callous, dictatorial, and heavy handed in her management of the employees, capricious and vindictive in meting out discipline, and unprofessional in the way she has interacted with employees. Moreover, she has engaged in nepotism and cronyism in the hiring process, and pursued managerial policies that are contrary to the efficiency of the agency and the best interest of taxpayers, according to those who have publicly filed complaints in which their identities are disclosed.
Also brought in for severe criticism in these signed complaints are Logan Olds, the general manager of the Victor Valley Water Reclamation Authority, and Gilbert Perez, VVWRA’s director of operations, who are alleged to have ignored longstanding complaints about the fashion in which Valles has acted or engaged in similar treatment of employees themselves. Valles is the VVWRA’s director of administration, overseeing day-to-day finance operations and human resource functions. The Victor Valley Water Reclamation Authority is an agency of the state of California which provides wastewater treatment service along the Mojave River in the Victor Valley. It is a joint powers authority, which by its charter has as its board members one member from each of the Hesperia, Victorville and Apple Valley councils as well as the San Bernardino County First District Supervisor.
The charges against Valles, Olds, Perez and the VVWRA, however, come at a time and under circumstances in which there are procedural, legal and political efforts ongoing to wrest money from the agency, unionize its workers and undercut Valles’ potential future political ambition. Moreover, the concerted volley of charges vectored at Valles come in the aftermath of complaints she filed with the district attorney’s office, the California Fair Political Practices Commission and the FBI regarding a financial conflict of interest on the part of Lovingood, whose staffing company formerly had a contract with the Victor Valley Water Reclamation Authority. That company’s lawyer is now maintaining that the company is owed some $3.6 million by the authority. In her complaints to the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office in July 2014, the FPPC, and the FBI in December 2014, Valles stated that she believed Lovingood ran afoul of the law, specifically Government Code Section 1090, because of his influence over the VVWRA’s contract with his firm Industrial Clerical Recruiters, Inc, which is also known as ICR or ICR Staffing.
In this way, there are factors that both support and weaken the case being made against Valles, Olds, Perez and the Victor Valley Water Reclamation Authority. And the wider circumstance opens up an even more disturbing set of questions regarding Lovingood and the degree to which his company’s dealings have become intertwined with the county.
The most convincing aspect of the recently lodged charges targeting Valles and the VVWRA are the number of complainants, the relative consistency of their versions of events, the verifiability of the basic elements of their narratives and their willingness to be identified. At the same time, the nature of this concerted and obviously coordinated attack gives rise to doubts as to whether it was a spontaneous outpouring of complaints by aggrieved former employees or whether it was formulated specifically for the purposes of discrediting Valles.
Former VVWRA employees Katherine Beyers, James Bryant, Gina Cloutier, R.C. Elliot, Elaine Gutierrez, Natalie Mirmontes and Haik Seropian have all provided signed statements in which they relate circumstances pertaining to their employment at the Victor Valley Water Reclamation Authority and their departures. All cite poor or deteriorating personal interaction with Valles, which included, they say, bullying, intimidation and unfair treatment.
Seropian, an accounting technician, said Valles had insulted him when he sought her guidance on the contents of a financial statement he was putting together and that she had made deprecating comments about his grooming habits.
Miramontes, who had been a secretary to a now-retired general manager, said she had been pressured by Valles to give up the name of an employee who had anonymously reported a safety violation at the VVWRA plant.
According to Miramontes, Valles was guilty of “putting VVWRA staff to work for her own illegitimate political gain” and said Valles “uses her paid time ‘working’ at VVWRA tweeting about elections, or other meaningless things all while wasting taxpayers’ hard earned money.”
Gutierrez, a former environmental compliance administrative aide of five years standing with the agency, said she was “forced out of my position … and was not presented with the evidence acquired against me and was not afforded an adequate opportunity to present my side of the story before a disciplinary decision was made.”
R.C. Elliott, who held the position of day operator for six years, stated that “During my time there I endured a hostile work environment under the management of Angela Valles, Logan Olds, and Gilbert Perez. I was forced out of my position and endured a lot of unneeded stress. Management trained me to hold specific duties but would purposely change my job functions without enough training in order to catch a mistake and then make the write ups they needed to pressure me out; and then to finally terminate me with the paper trail they had created.”
Cloutier, who was formerly the laboratory/environmental compliance supervisor at the Victor Valley Water Reclamation Authority said that because of “intimidation, bullying retaliatory disciplinary actions and other employment actions” by Valles and Gilbert Perez “employees are afraid to come forward with concerns, including safety issues. This has been reported to Logan Olds, who seemed to do nothing to stop it and in many cases the behaviors would worsen after discussions with Mr. Olds.”
Cloutier charged that “Angela Valles released confidential personnel and medical information to unauthorized persons. In at least one case, such information was used to intimidate and threaten another employee.”
Cloutier maintained that Perez had altered the operation of the plant during the time lab sampling of discharge was taking place to prevent the collection of data that would show the plant was functioning in violation of its environmental permit.
James Bryant, an 18-year employee who rose to the position of operations manager, said that “Intimidation of employees is common practice” by Valles, and he said the agency was marred by unfair hiring practices “When jobs are posted, the posting is closed, interviews are conducted [and] then they decide to ignore experienced people that have donated thousands of hours in the intern program with the agency for friends and neighbors of management staff with zero knowledge of or experience in the industry. My hands were tied as a supervisor having any say in who was hired for my department. I was forced to work with the cards I was dealt, which made my job even more difficult. VVWRA has an excellent intern program that has produced very qualified people, yet the director of human resources chose who she wanted during the interview process based on personal feelings about someone rather than the qualifications or how well the candidate performed during the interview process.”
Kate Beyer, a public information officer with the agency, said Valles had concerned herself with criticisms of “irrelevant details about [employees’] appearance, demeanor, life-style choice, sexuality, race, office décor” and ruled by intimidation tactics that included interrogations of employees. Beyer said that “Often, a frightened text would go around the office when Angela Valles arrived at the plant.”
Beyer said that Valles had engaged in “illegal hiring practices” and had falsified her own time sheet and had worked “from home a lot due to a ‘medical condition,’ even though it is against her own rules and regulations policy.”
Beyer’s statement carries with it the added weight of having been made “under the penalty of perjury.”
Surfacing at this point is a more than seven year old letter dated October 15, 2007 purported to be from “concerned employees” at VVWRA. It stated that upon acceding to the position of human resources director, Valles had installed her sister as her assistant and that “she worked on her [political] campaign, taking people to lunch while using the agency’s funds.”
Despite the purported substance of the letters, their timing and focus raise questions as to the motive behind the sudden outpouring of information. An accompanying collective statement of former and current employees notes that in the past nine years, of those leaving the employment of the Victor Valley Water Reclamation Authority, four, or seven percent, took normal retirements while 28, or 47 percent, were terminated. Eleven, or 19 percent, the collective statement notes, left willingly to get out of a hostile environment or avoid harassment, and the reason for the leaving of the other eight, or 14 percent, is unknown. An effort to unionize the agency’s workforce appears to be under way.
That effort is coupled with an unresolved $3.62 million claim against the Victor Valley Wastewater Reclamation Authority by ICR Staffing Services, Inc., which is owned by San Bernardino County 1st District Supervisor Robert Lovingood. In that claim, dated August 22, 2014 and served September 11, 2014, ICR Staffing Services alleged that VVWRA failed to pay prevailing wage to ICR’s contract workers between 2011 and 2013 and solicited ICR’s temporary employees to jump ship to a competing staffing agency.
The federal prevailing wage law and the California Davis-Bacon Act requires that workers on governmental projects be paid prevailing union scale wages. There is a question, however, of whether it is the responsibility of the government agency or the company employing the workers to meet the prevailing wage requirements. In the case of the ICR contract with VVWRA, ICR participated in a bidding process for the work, and obtained the contract on the basis of having submitted the lowest responsive bid.
Lovingood’s company filed the claim sometime after the two-year contract, which ran between 2011 and 2013, for ICR recruits to work on the Upper Narrows Pipeline project, came to a close. Subsequently, VVWRA utilized workers provided by Hesperia-based iLink Business Management, which underbid ICR.
While ICR had competed in a bid process to gain the two-year arrangement with the Victor Valley Water Reclamation Agency in 2011 and was paid approximately $260,000 per year for the services its recruits provided, ICR attorney Diana Carloni Nourse maintains that the ICR workers should have been paid prevailing union scale wages and that ICR should have been paid in excess of $1.5 million per year for the work. ICR further maintains that after the agency contracted with iLink, it attempted to lure ICR’s recruits to work for iLink.
Such claims are considered a precursor to a lawsuit. Upon a public agency’s rejection of a claim or after failing to respond to the claim for 45 days, the claimant is eligible to initiate a lawsuit based on the issues raised in the claim. As of this week, ICR had not yet filed such a lawsuit. Such a lawsuit would have complications, among which is that Lovingood in December 2012, while his company yet had the contract with VVWRA, automatically became a Victor Valley Water Reclamation Agency board member. A joint powers authority arrangement between the county and VVWRA installs the county’s First District supervisor as a VVWRA board member. Lovingood remained as a board member until August 2013, at which point arrangements were made to substitute Lovingood’s colleague on the board of supervisors, James Ramos, in as the VVWRA board member to replace him.
Despite that change, Lovingood was technically a member of the Victor Valley Water Reclamation Board while the arrangement his company now maintains was illegal was in place. Additionally, he was the owner, president and chief executive officer of ICR when it entered into what the company now claims was an illegal arrangement with the Victor Valley Water Reclamation Authority.
Given Valles’ position as the authority’s human resources director, there appears to be a confluence between the claim, which alleges the VVWRA mishandled personnel issues with regard to the proper remuneration of its contracted workers, and the charges against Valles raised by the agency’s current and former employees.
In addition to this legal angle, there is a political one. Valles served four years on the Victorville City Council before leaving last year. In 2012, she made an unsuccessful run for Congress in the 8th Congressional District. In 2014, she married former Apple Valley mayor and councilman Rick Roelle. Roelle in 2012 ran for First District supervisor, forcing the race into a November run-off against Lovingood. Lovingood prevailed. Recently, however, there has been much speculation about whether Valles, who garnered something of a reputation as a reformer while in office in Victorville as she challenged the staid and established political establishment that had grown up under former mayor Terry Caldwell who left office in 2010 just as Valles was taking office, is again considering a political run.
Valles on February 26 addressed in detail the charges that have been hurled at her.
“I have never been unprofessional with employees,” she said. “As a manager, it is my primary duty to hold staff accountable. It is unfortunate that you will always have staff that cannot differentiate between accountability and harassment. These disgruntled employees had their opportunity to make complaints during their employment and upon exit. Any complaint of harassment has to be investigated and acted upon. All personnel actions and investigations are thoroughly vetted and approved through the VVWRA Board’s legal counsel, the law firm Best Best & Krieger. Any termination of employment is signed off by the general manager. What is interesting is all but one former employee that complained was under my direction. The rest were in the operations department. Only one requested to be transferred under me and resigned on their own accord. The supervisor of the department makes the case against the employee. Human resources ensures both parties are dealt with fairly and according to law with the guidance of legal counsel.”
Valles continued, “I have never been vindictive in my dealing with employees nor have these accusations ever been brought up until now.”
She dismissed accusations that she thwarted the promotion of qualified employees and promoted unqualified employees, saying “VVWRA has a very strict hiring process that includes a diverse panel (2 to 4) made up of the department’s supervisor, a human resources representative, if available an outside-the-agency individual with expertise in the area, and maybe a director if available. I am not on all panels. I may send the human resources technician or director of operations in my stead. Education, experience, profile assessment, and interview are all scored and the general manager makes the final hiring decisions after careful review of scores and files. He takes the recommendation of the panel into consideration. As the director of administration, I do sign all offer letters to employees at the direction of the general manager.”
Valles addressed the nepotism charge lodged against her. “VVWRA has never hired a relative of mine despite baseless accusations,” she said. “Nepotism is prohibited. If an applicant knows someone employed at VVWRA, that employee is completely removed from the hiring process and the general manager is alerted.”
Accusations that she violated agency policy “are purely subjective and baseless,” she said. Nor had she violated employees’ rights, she said. “All personal actions and investigations are thoroughly vetted and approved through the VVWRA Board’s legal counsel, Best Best & Krieger. Any termination of employment is signed off by the General Manager after approval from legal counsel. Contractual employees, probationary employees or resignations are not entitled by law to the Skelly process.“
California public employees are entitled to a so-called Skelly hearing, which allows an employee who is to be disciplined or fired to respond to the allegations prior to the imposition of any actual disciplinary action or termination.
Prior to going to work for the Victor Valley Water Reclamation Authority, Valles was the warden of the privately operated 550-bed, adult male, Victor Valley Medium Community Correctional Facility in Adelanto. One former VVWRA said she “runs the VVWRA the operations plant like a prison.”
She responded, saying, “I do not run VVWRA. I am the director of administration. I work under the direction of the general manager. The general manager runs VVWRA and if the general manager is absent the director of operations has general manager powers. Again this statement is subjective and baseless.”
Valles said she did not see any connection between the bevy of charges levied at her and any ongoing effort to unionize VVWRA employees. Rather, she gave indication she was sympathetic to employees’ efforts to up their remuneration.
“I did not see that [union formation efforts] as related,” she said. “I have always heard complaints of low wages and benefits from staff. The VVWRA has not approved any salary surveys for adjustments to salary and benefits in approximately 10 years. We have documented surveys from the majority of employees asking for higher wages and benefits. These subjective comments are only coming from former disgruntled employees.”
She did, however, say that the charges against her, Olds and Perez may have been inflated to galvanize employees and the public to support the formation of a union. “That could be a possibility,” she said. “There are always those employees that don’t want to be held accountable. It is our job as management to hold staff accountable to the ratepayers.”
Valles acknowledged that the authority had hired former ICR staff. “Yes, we have,” she said. She reversed the question, suggesting that ICR may have hired former VVWRA employees, thus giving them an incentive to make what she said are spurious charges against her and the authority. “The better question is: ‘How many of these disgruntled employees are seeking or sought employment through ICR?’” she said.
Valles said she “most definitely” saw the attacks now being leveled against her, which coincide with a claim against the agency by a company owned by Lovingood, as an effort to reduce her political viability.
“It is strange that I am being singled out,” she said, and when asked if she believed her outspokenness in the past with regard to public issues and her reformist stance as a member of the Victorville City Council had attracted the concerted and obviously coordinated attack she is experiencing, she answered in the affirmative. When asked if she harbored any future political aspirations, Valles said, “Right now I don’t have any specific office in mind, but I am not ruling anything out in the future.”
Valles said the positive achievements of the authority were being buried beneath the current contretemps and that a disinformation campaign was ongoing, which intended first and foremost to advance Lovingood financially, by benefitting his company, and secondarily politically by casting her, since there has been speculation about her running against him, in an unfavorable light. She said at least some former Victor Valley Water Reclamation Authority employees were in league with him.
“Unfortunately, I cannot comment specifically on personnel matters,” she said. “However, I can say that VVWRA would not be where it is today if we didn’t ensure that our staff is competent, accurate and efficient. VVWRA has been recognized over and over for its technological innovation and its renewable energy programs, while receiving the highest awards available for governmental accounting and budgeting. These awards and recognitions are the result of the hard work of management and our employees. Sometimes we have to make tough decisions to protect the best interests of our member agencies and local ratepayers. We have a cohesive management team at VVWRA that is united in providing the best service at the lowest cost possible for the Victor Valley. I believe our years of outstanding performance and cost savings along with a long list of recognitions and accomplishments speak for themselves.
“With that said,” she continued, “I do find the timing of these frivolous allegations suspicious. In 2013 First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood was awarded a $250,000 contract from the VVWRA Board for temporary staffing services for the upper narrows emergency. As the director of finance I spoke during public comments at the May 2013 meeting warning the current VVWRA Board members that this award could be a possible 1090/conflict of interest violation. The contract was awarded to ICR Staffing which First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood owns and operates. Since Supervisor Lovingood has been in office, VVWRA has paid his ICR Staffing agency $560,000.”
Valles continued, “Lovingood recently lost the bid in 2014 for another temporary staffing contract award. Supervisor Lovingood sent his attorney to make defamatory remarks in open session attacking myself and VVWRA to include iLINK who was the lowest bidder. The VVWRA Board decided to rebid the contract, giving ICR a second chance at winning the contract. Again, ICR lost to iLINK. Lovingood’s attorney then filed a claim against VVWRA for $3.6 million.
“Since then I have filed 1090 inquiries with several investigative bodies such as the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office in July 2014, the FPPC, the Attorney General through Congressman Paul Cook’s office, and the FBI,” Valles said. “Now the same VVWRA Board members that awarded First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood’s possibly illegal contract is calling for an investigation focusing on me, who filed inquiries of possible 1090 violations. It has come to my attention that these same disgruntled employees have been meeting with two members of the VVWRA Board and Lovingood. I expect this investigation to disclose those facts as well as who on the VVWRA Board has received campaign contributions from Supervisor Lovingood, his wife, and ICR Staffing. I cannot help but believe this is in direct retaliation for whistle- blowing and an attempt to tarnish my reputation in the community.”
Overall, Valles said, “The former employees’ claims are false. All personnel actions are thoroughly vetted through the Best Best & Krieger Law firm, who are retained by and work directly for the VVWRA Board members. The allegations of falsifying timecards are false. I am an exempt employee that can account for all my time. My accomplishments at VVWRA speak for themselves. The allegation of campaigning on agency time is false. I am not in office nor did I seek reelection. I directly oversee the public information department and may attend occasional community functions as part of my job duties. Unfortunately, there are always those employees that cannot differentiate between accountability and harassment. As a director over the human resources department it is my primary duty to hold staff accountable to the ratepayers. It is unfortunate that the ratepayers have to pay tens of thousands of dollars on investigations for frivolous claims from disgruntled employees who have exhausted their administrative remedies at separation. Since First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood lost his contract with VVWRA, he has vowed to destroy me and VVWRA. It is too bad the taxpayers will have to pick up the tab for his political agenda and profit.”
The attorney for ICR Staffing, Diana Carloni Nourse, is a former Hesperia mayor and councilwoman, who served in the 1990s. Like Valles was in Victorville over a decade later, Carloni-Nourse was estranged from her male council colleagues for most of her tenure, and perceived as something of a reformer and political dissident. Her emergence as the legal mouthpiece for Lovingood, and by virtue of that station at odds with Valles, is viewed by some of those with historical perspective, as ironic. According to Carloni Nourse, Valles, while “acting within the scope and course of her employment” with the Victor Valley Water Reclamation Authority created “a sham bidding process” that favored iLink over ICR “in an attempt to deter and eliminate ICR from competing for the contract.” As a result, according to Carloni Nourse, claimant [i.e., ICR] and its employees have been damaged in an aggregate sum of $3.6 million for wages and profits unpaid taken from claimant.”
The Sentinel has confirmed that Valles did file similar complaints touching on the ICR contract with the VVWRA with the district attorney’s office, the FPPC, Congressman Cook’s office and the FBI. A copy of the complaint filed with the FBI obtained by the Sentinel ran to 315 pages and contained a full range of back-up materials relating to the contract and ICR’s claim against VVWRA.
By Mark Gutglueck