By Mark Gutglueck
Recently appointed Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe has stepped into controversy by loading her staff with a core of political operatives who are widely perceived as having a primary function of tending to her election when she runs as the incumbent next year.
Of note is that at least three of her board colleagues and perhaps all four have encouraged and supported her in indulging her political ambition and the utilization of public money in perpetuating her hold on office.
Rowe’s bold use of her authority in office comes a decade after the demise of a former board member, Bill Postmus, who soared to the heights of political power in San Bernardino County, only to come crashing to earth, and was charged with and ultimately convicted of 14 felony counts of political corruption. The case against Postmus, which involved bribery, conspiracy, public conflict of interest and misappropriation of public funds, originated with an investigation which focused upon issues and crimes similar to the specter that has now descended over Rowe involving political patronage and the hiring of friends, supporters, associates and cronies into government positions who then involved themselves in political activity on the public dime.
Amid a multitude of similarities, one distinction between Postmus and Rowe consists of the consideration that Postmus’ misuse of his hiring authority while in the position of an elected official came as a consequence of his having been thrice elected to county office, while Rowe’s wielding of her power of employment is taking place prior to her having faced the Third District’s electorate, as she is progressing toward and gearing up to do just that for the first time in the 2020 election.
One similarity that Rowe has with Postmus in particular is the fashion in which both husbanded favor with the county’s Republican political establishment as a key to fulfilling their own ambition. In the case of Postmus, he was in the 1990s a founding member of the High Desert Young Republicans, which was created in conjunction with a handful of other acolytes of then-Republican Assembly Leader and later Republican California Senate Leader Jim Brulte, including Brad Mitzelfelt, Keith Olberg, Tad Honeycutt and Anthony Adams. Rowe, who was elected to the Yucca Valley Town Council in her maiden foray into politics, was mentored by Chad Mayes and Paul Cook, Republicans both who in turn served as mayor of Yucca Valley before they moved into higher political office, to the Assembly in the case of Mayes and both the Assembly and Congress in Cook’s circumstance.
Indeed, it was Rowe’s GOP bona fides that achieved for her the appointment as Third District supervisor in December.
On November 6 of last year, James Ramos, who was elected Third District supervisor in 2012 and reelected to the post in 2016, cruised to victory over San Bernardino City Councilman Henry Nickel in the race for Assembly in California’s 40th District, which includes all or part of Rancho Cucamonga, San Bernardino Highland, Redlands and Loma Linda. Ramos prevailed by a convincing 77,586 votes or 59.53 percent to 52,746 votes or 40.47 percent margin.
Prior to his election to the board of supervisors, Ramos was the elected leader of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians Tribal Council. In defeating the Republican Nickel, he became the first Native American to be elected to the California Assembly. As a Democrat, Ramos and Supervisor Josie Gonzales composed a two-thirds Democratic minority on board of supervisors. Their three colleagues, Robert Lovingood, Curt Hagman and Janice Rutherford, are stouthearted Republicans. Since the 1960s, San Bernardino County has been dominated politically by the Republican Party. Even though the number of registered Democratic voters eclipsed the number of registered Republican voters in San Bernardino County in 2009, for a decade the Party of Lincoln has maintained control in San Bernardino County by virtue of stronger Republican voter turnout and greater Republican success at getting independent, unaligned, and less mainstream party voters to support their candidates than the Democrats, such that San Bernardino County remains one of the last bastions of the GOP in the increasingly heavily Democratic Golden State. The Republicans have maintained this political edge despite the growing advantage in voter registration the Democrats enjoy in the county. As of Sunday, January 27, 2019, 372,439 or 38.8% of the county’s 961,054 voters are registered Democrats and 277,556 or 28.9% are registered Republicans. Those with no party preference number 255,101 or 26.5% in the county. Registrants with more obscure political affiliations such as with the American Independent, Green, Libertarian and Peace and Freedom parties account for the remaining 5.8 percent of the county’s voters. In the county’s 24 municipalities, 17 have city or town councils where Republicans outnumber Democrats. Of the nine Assembly members representing San Bernardino County at present, five are Republicans and four are Democrats. Republicans yet hold four of the six California State Senate offices representing San Bernardino County. Only in the U.S. House of Representatives is San Bernardino County’s Republican delegation lagging behind the Democrats, with but a single member of the GOP, Paul Cook, representing the county in Congress compared to four Democrats.
Upon his victory in November, James Ramos let his colleagues on the board know that it was his wish that his deputy chief of staff, Chris Carrillo, would replace him as Third District supervisor. Rather than accede to Ramos’s preference, however, then-Board Chairman Lovingood made clear the board would consider a range of candidates, which led to something of a falling out between the two men, who had both been originally elected to the board in 2012, and between whom their had been a warm and cooperative relationship for nearly six years.
The board invited residents of the Third District to apply for the position, resulting in 48 people expressing interest in stepping into the vacancy. Forty-three of those completed applications for the post, at least 22 of whom were current or former elected office holders, including former San Bernardino County Third District Supervisor Dennis L. Hansberger, one-time Beaumont Mayor and current San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee Chairwoman Janice Leja, Republican Central Committee member Damon L. Alexander, Yucaipa Mayor Greg Bogh, Loma Linda City Councilman Ronald Dailey, Yucaipa Water Board Member and former Westlake Mayor/ Former San Bernardino County Fifth District Chief of Staff and Inland Empire Taxpayers Association Founder Chris Mann, San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis, East Valley Water District Board Member Chris Carrillo, former Third District San Bernardino County Supervisor Neil Derry, former Twentynine Palms Mayor Jim Bagley, former San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Robert Fawke, Loma Linda Mayor Rhodes Rigsby, former Loma Linda Councilman T. Milford Harrison, Barstow Mayor Julie Hackbarth-McIntyre, Former Rialto Mayor and California Assemblyman John Longville, current Big Bear Councilman/former Chino Councilman William Jahn, Former San Bernardino Mayor Judith Valles, Grand Terrace Councilwoman Sylvia Robles, Redlands Councilman Eddie Tejada, former San Bernardino City Councilman Tobin Brinker, former Republican Assemblyman/State Senator Bill Emmerson and Rowe, who was then a field representative for Congressman Cook and a former Yucca Valley Councilwoman. Of the 48 applicants, at least 14 were registered Democrats. Doing a quick winnowing process, the board provided all applicants with a questionnaire, and without revealing the answers provided by any of the individuals to the ten questions, reduced the field to 13 candidates: Leja, Hansberger, Daily, Mann, Davis, Bagley, Rigsby, two-time Congressional candidate Sean Flynn, Hackbarth-McIntyre, Jahn, Rowe, Brinker and Emmerson.
Only one of those – Dailey – was a Democrat, while two – Brinker and Emmerson – had long been registered as Republicans but had re-registered as unaffiliated with a party because of professional considerations. The remaining ten were all Republicans in good standing with the GOP. Pointedly, Carrillo, a Democrat, had been passed over. After hearing from all thirteen in a specially-called meeting on December 11, the board reduced the field to five: Emmerson, Rowe, Jahn, Flynn and Rigsby. On December 18, after hearing from the five and indulging Supervisor Gonzales in allowing Carrillo to be heard, the board, essentially at the instigation of Lovingood and with the solid backing of Rutherford and the at-first tentative and then more enthusiastic backing of Hagman, together with the forced endorsement of Gonzales, selected Rowe as Ramos’s replacement.
Initially during the interview process, Rowe was reluctant to commit to saying she would run for election outright in 2020 if she were to be appointed Third District supervisor. She indicated that she was unwilling to make a long term commitment and that in fact, because of her respect for her two primary political mentors – Cook and Mayes – she would not seek reelection if either of them opted out of remaining in the federal or state legislature in 2020 and sought the Third District county supervisor post, in which case she said she would stand down as a candidate in deference to either one. But as her fellow Republicans – Lovingood, Rutherford and Hagman – conveyed their belief, both subtly and more directly, in the desirability of her remaining in place beyond 2020 to perpetuate the Republican hold on the county, Rowe got the hint and, reversing herself, asserted she would run again, against Cook, Mayes or anyone else. That appeared to be the final element in her favor that swung the Republican board majority fully behind her, which resulted in Gonzales, whose resistance to appointing Rowe would have been meaningless and futile, going along with the majority.
While local political office in California is by law and tradition considered nonpartisan, in San Bernardino County virtually all elected offices are impacted by partisan considerations, and the Republican Party has dominated that competition. Nevertheless, there were, in the initial aftermath of Rowe’s appointment, some county residents who thought there was a chance that Rowe would make a gesture toward accommodation with the growing county Democratic majority as well as maintaining continuity with and forging a cordial relationship with James Ramos by appointing Carrillo to serve as her chief of staff. Those who had any such hopeful expectation saw it dashed, however, when Rowe early last month moved to appoint, and the board rubberstamped, her selection of Matt Knox as the overseer of her staff. Rowe worked with Knox while both were with Congressman Cook’s office. Knox essentially ran Cook’s political operation, raising eyebrows across the United States by serving as Cook’s field representative, in which he was paid by the American taxpayers, while he also served as Cook’s campaign manager, which came close to blurring, or indeed outright obliterated, the distinction between his role as a government employee and his involvement in outright partisan political activity.
Knox’s hiring, which was made retroactively effective to January 5, while not exactly hidden from the public, was shrouded from scrutiny by virtue of Rowe prevailing upon Clerk of the Board of Supervisors Laura Welch to bury the item relating to hiring Knox as Third District chief of staff and providing him with a total annual compensation package of $206,605, consisting of a salary of $121,826 and benefits totaling $84,779 on the consent calendar for the January 8 board of supervisors meeting. The consent calendar is reserved for items deemed to be noncontroversial, such that a multitude of items considered to be unworthy of public discussion are collectively voted upon with a single vote. At the January 8 board meeting, there were 53 separate items on the consent calendar. The board approved the hiring without drawing any attention to Knox’s posting and no public announcement of it was made.
This week, the board of supervisors, at its meeting held on Tuesday January 29, approved augmenting Rowe’s staff with Dillon Lesovsky. Lesovsky’s hiring was a baldly partisan political move. According to a knowledgeable source, Rowe was influenced by three factors in hiring Lesovsky: her own acquaintance with him as a member of Congressman Cook’s staff and as one of Cook’s political operatives; the recommendation of Knox; and the recommendation of Phil Paule, who is currently Supervisor Janice Rutherford’s chief of staff.
Paule in an entrenched Republican Party functionary, who has been strident in advocating against the values, policies and standard bearers in the Democratic Party. He was the district director for former Congressman Darrel Issa and a candidate for the California Assembly in District 67 in 2012. Paule is an ally of a multiplicity of current and former Republican office holders, including Issa, Congressman Paul Cook, Congressman Doug LaMalfa, former Congress members Jeff Denham, Gary Miller Mary Bono Mack and Mimi Walters; former state senators Ray Haynes, Bill Leonard, Dick Mountjoy, Bob Huff, Bill Emmerson, Tony Strickland, and Mark Wyland, former California Assembly members Kevin Jeffries, Beth Gaines, Jim Silva, Cameron Smyth, Diane Harkey, Chris Norby, Brian Nestande and Jeff Miller.
Together with Rutherford, Supervisor Lovingood and Supervisor Curt Hagman, who was himself a six-year member of the California Assembly and former chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, Paule is an architect of the continuing Republican domination of San Bernardino County’s machinery of government.
Both Knox and Levosky are considered to be crucial soldiers in the work to be carried out in extending GOP dominance in San Bernardino County into the future. Both have well-earned reputations for engaging in bare-knuckle politicking, in which neither has hesitated in landing below-the-belt blows to the opponents of the candidates on whose behalves they have worked, on some occasions in tandem. One example of this is their efforts on behalf of Cook last year when he found himself challenged, not by a Democrat, but in this case another Republican, Tim Donnelly. Violating the so-called Eleventh Commandment, which prohibits one Republican from speaking ill of another Republican, they launched a vicious campaign against Donnelly. The centerpiece of this was a website, Dirty Donnelly.com, which utilized doctored photos to paint Donnelly in the most negative of light, and alleging that he had a criminal record, was scamming senior citizens, had deserted his family, had engaged in “political fraud,” stole from his own wife and was unemployed. In violation of state law, the website had no identifying California Fair Political Practices registration number, a circumstance which was paralleled by signs attacking Donnelly that the pair were posting which did not bear the indicia required under California law for campaign signs and materials to show what entity, organization, committee or campaign paid for the materials. The anti-Donnelly campaign carried out by Knox and Levosky, which involved threads of fact interwoven into a tapestry of misstatements, exaggeration and overstatement, proved highly effective, as Cook trounced Donnelly in the November 6 election 108,414 votes or 60 percent to 68,370 votes or 40 percent.
Questions in particular attend the hiring of Lesovsky, who remains employed full time with ComAv, as a salesman working out of the transportation company’s Victorville office at the former George Air Force Base now known as Southern California Logistics Airport. Lesovsky deals with and seeks out entities interested in what the company calls its “integrated asset management solutions” for aviation related enterprises, offering aircraft storage facility which the Lesovsky boasts “can host in excess of 500 aircraft, with ample ramp and hanger space that can accommodate in excess of 20 aircraft for transitional maintenance, and an aircraft disassembly facility at which 12 aircraft can be processed simultaneously.”
How or when Lesovsky can contribute to Rowe’s servicing of her constituents while he is engaged with ComAv during the business week is of moment, though the application to Lesovsky of the dual descriptors as a “policy advisor” and/or “policy analyst” might imply that he need not be present at the county’s facilities or in the field during normal business hours. Still the same, Lesovsky does not have a policy background and has never been employed in a position relating to policy formulation with Cook.
A knowledgeable source told the Sentinel that Lesovsky “has assisted in political campaigns doing the dirty work that others won’t” and that he “has bragged that he took this job to boast Dawn’s low name identification both in her office and doing campaign work. So you will see fancy videos and graphics from him on both sites. This is a travesty. Dawn Rowe is hiring political consultants on the county dime. This is merely a way for Dawn Rowe to get around campaigns limits and use county resources. This is what happens when you appoint someone so close to an election.”
That Lesovsky’s status as an aggressive political functionary whose orientation toward politics is a focus on questionable tactics involving the application of money obtained in a milieu of “pay to play” politics is evinced in the circumstance that led to his departure from Cook’s staff. That came about when Levosky was caught by activists with the Project Veritas organization on a hidden camera saying openly that political donations to Cook would earn the donors favorable treatment from the congressman. That exchange can be viewed at this link: https://www.projectveritas.com/2015/06/22/caught-on-hidden-camera-politicians-cash-in-on-export-import-bank/
Though Cook and his office were embarrassed by the incident, which necessitated that the congressman make a show of distancing himself from Lesovsky, arrangements were made to help him land on his feet, and he soon thereafter was given another governmental job on the staff of one of Cook’s political allies, Supervisor Lovingood, where he remained until finding the position he now has with AvCom.
When the Sentinel reached Lesovsky this week, he was unwilling to go on the record with regard to his hiring, what skills he brought to his county assignment, what his duties consist of, how many hours he will devote to county work each week and whether he believed he would have license to engage in political efforts against those perceived as Rowe’s potential rivals in 2020. Nor was he willing to respond to pointed personal criticism about his involvement in the anti-Donnelly campaign or his statement caught on video by Project Veritas. He referred all questions to Rowe’s Third District communications director, Suzette Swallow. “I would refer you to her for any press or communications,” he said. When told that some of the controversy extended to him personally, he was yet unwilling to address any issues. “It will still be a Suzette thing, to be honest with you,” Lesovsky said.
When the Sentinel reached out to Swallow, the call was intercepted by another Rowe staff member, who said that Swallow was not available. The staff member said that Swallow, as the communications director, would not accept an email. She said she would relay the Sentinel’s request to speak to Swallow, offering an assurance that Swallow would return the call. Swallow did not return the call.
Three Sentinel efforts to reach Rowe by phone directly and two efforts to reach Knox by phone directly were unsuccessful. The office’s receptionist said Rowe and Knox were “in meetings. The importance of returning the Sentinel’s call, the receptionist said, was “up to their calendars.”
When a reporter went to the fifth floor office of the board of supervisors at the county’s main administration building at 325 North Arrowhead Avenue in downtown San Bernardino on Thursday afternoon, Rowe was not present, the main receptionist said.
David Wert, the official county spokesman, said Rowe had retained three members of the supervisorial staff employed by Ramos and that “There was no ‘sacking’ wholesale or retail” of the office’s employees who had worked there when Ramos was in place.”
Wert added, “As is standard procedure when a vacancy on the board occurs, the contracts of all members of former Supervisor Ramos’ former staff were automatically terminated when the vacancy occurred, with the exception of Gayle Covey, who the county retained to staff the district office during the vacancy.”
Wert said Rowe hired three members of former Supervisor Ramos’ staff – field representative Gayle Covey, whom Rowe promoted to deputy chief of staff, as well as Mark Lundquist and Christina Garcia to provide support services to as a Field Representative I and a Supervisors Executive Aide II, respectively. Lundquist and Garcia had previously served in their respective positions for Supervisor Ramos.
“All but one of the remaining members of former Supervisor Ramos’ former staff secured other employment within the county before the board of supervisors began the process of filling the Ramos vacancy,” Wert said. “One went to work for Supervisor Lovingood and three found employment with other county departments. Supervisor Rowe did not terminate or ‘sack’ anyone nor did she have the opportunity to re-hire the vast majority of them.”
Wert said, “Regarding publicity or any lack thereof concerning the appointment of Matthew Knox as chief of staff, I can’t recall the county nor any board member creating fanfare around the appointment of staff members. Mr. Knox’s contract was item #3 on the January 8 board of supervisors agenda. The appointments you noticed on this week’s agenda were item #7.”
Wert said, “It would be up to Supervisor Rowe to discuss to what degree she feels obligated, if any, to ask herself “What would James Ramos do?” before making decisions because that’s who the voters chose to represent them through 2020. But from the county’s standpoint I would point out that the voters of the county enacted the charter, which makes appointment the only legal option when a vacancy occurs. And when a person is appointed to the board, they become a county supervisor in every sense of the term – not interim supervisor or acting supervisor or even appointed supervisor, just supervisor.”
As such, Wert said, members of the board have the authority and autonomy to choose their staff members according to their own priorities, subject to the approval of their board colleagues.
By Mark Gutglueck