By Mark Gutglueck
Emerging detail and further revelations about the board of supervisors’ selection of Dawn Rowe as Third District supervisor in December and her hiring of two “political hitmen” into key positions on her staff implicate both supervisors Robert Lovingood and Janice Rutherford in an effort to create a partisan electioneering operation within the fifth floor suite of administrative offices at the county’s governmental headquarters in San Bernardino.
Rowe’s hiring of political operatives Matt Knox and Dillon Lesovsky as her office’s chief of staff and policy advisor has resulted in a firestorm of controversy, based in some measure upon the brutal and illegal tactics employed by Knox and Lesovsky in campaigns against the opponents of the candidates they have worked for, as well as the prospect that both will work on Rowe’s electoral effort in 2020.
Rowe was chosen to succeed James Ramos, who was first elected to the Third District post in 2012, reelected in 2016 and then successfully vied for the California Assembly in the 40th District in November. Ramos’s 2016 reelection entitled him to hold the supervisor’s post until 2020. His resignation as supervisor to move on to Sacramento thus created a gap on the council. Rowe’s appointment to the position will thus end in 2020, and she has committed to seeking election as Third District supervisor in her own right next year.
State law prohibits the use of public money to pay for political or electioneering work on behalf of any candidate for public office and it is illegal for public employees to engage in partisan activity or any electioneering while functioning in their capacity as a public official or from public premises or while using public facilities, equipment, machinery, vehicles or materials. In hiring Lesovsky, in particular, Rowe appeared to be testing the envelope. There is a clearly identifiable anomaly to the arrangement relating to the provision of Lesovsky’s services to the county in that he remains as a full-time employee Monday through Friday with AvCom, a massive aircraft storage and aviation asset management facility involved in the leasing, sales and consignment of aircraft engines and avionics equipment located at Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, while he is simultaneously serving as a member of Supervisor Rowe’s staff. Generally speaking, supervisoral staff members have historically been full-time county employees functioning within the traditional workweek on an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily schedule, with only rare exceptions to that rule. Lesovsky’s circumstance raises questions as to how he is fitting within the standard rubric for county employees. Moreover, Lesovsky has himself made statements which indicate that his function is a political one, i.e., getting individuals elected and in place to govern rather than one devoted to the actual act of governing or facilitating the delivery of governmental services to residents, citizens and constituents.
Both Knox and Lesovsky have extensive and recent experience in running political campaigns and/or engaging in activity that is an adjunct to those campaigns. In the 2018 election, both were involved in the generation of attack or “hit” material relating to Congressman Paul Cook’s opponent, former California Assemblyman Tim Donnelly. Despite both Cook and Donnelly being Republicans, they faced off against each other in the November general election, having placed first and second, respectively, in California’s open primary voting in the June race in California’s 8th Congressional District. Previously, Lesovsky had been employed as a member of Cook’s Congressional staff. Knox remained as one of Cook’s staffers and was also functioning as Cook’s 2018 campaign manager. Knox and Lesovsky worked on the “Dirty Donnelly.com” effort, which consisted of a website and signs directing the public to that website, which utilized doctored photos to paint Donnelly in the most negative of light, and dwelt at length on a number of derogatories relating to the former assemblyman, including 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, neither the website nor the signs directing voters’ attention to the website had any identifying California Fair Political Practices registration number nor the indicia required under California law for campaign signs and materials to show what entity, organization, committee or campaign paid for the materials. The campaign on behalf of Cook directed by Knox and the hit perpetrated by Knox and Lesovsky proved highly effective, as Cook trounced Donnelly in the November 6 election 108,414 votes or just under 61.33 percent to 68,370 votes or 38.67 percent.
Those of a political bent took note of how effectively Cook was able to convincingly dispatch Donnelly, which was significant because Donnelly’s political persona, anchored to his identification as the most conservative politician in California and one who is unrelentingly faithful to bedrock ultra-right principles, matched perfectly with a solid plurality if not an outright majority of the voters in the overwhelmingly right wing 8th Congressional District. And while the identities of those behind Dirty Donnelly.com were unknown to the population in general, those in Republican Party circles recognized the site as the handiwork of Lesovsky and Knox.
For Supervisor Robert Lovingood and for Phil Paule, who is Supervisor Janice Rutherford’s chief of staff, the tandem of Knox and Lesovsky, with whom they were already quite familiar, presented interesting possibilities bridging out toward the future. Lovingood had first been elected supervisor in 2012, the same year Ramos had come into office. Like Ramos, he had been handily reelected supervisor in 2016. He is due to run for supervisor once more in 2020 if he wishes to remain as supervisor, which at this point is a possibility. It is equally possible that in 2020 he will be interested instead in moving on to higher office, as Congressman Cook, who next month turns 76, is mulling departing from Congress, and Jay Obernolte, the current Assemblyman in the 33rd District, is considering vying for Congress in the 8th Congressional District if Cook does elect to depart. Whatever his decision, to remain as supervisor, to seek to succeed Obernolte in the Assembly if Obernolte opts to run for Congress or to himself run for Congress in the aftermath of Cook’s decision to leave the House of Representatives, Lovingood will need to campaign in 2020. While Lovingood, as the incumbent, would be the odds-on favorite to be reelected to one last four-year term to the board of supervisors under the three-term limit in place for supervisors pursuant to the passage of Measure P in 2006, his viability as a candidate for either the Assembly or Congress would be far less certain and contingent upon the strength of the other candidates against whom he would be competing. Thus, being able to reliably call upon the off-the-shelf services of Knox and Lesovsky at that time would be of significant assistance to him. Paule, who has quite a history as a political operative himself and remains involved in electioneering efforts including those of his own and of other members of the Republican Party, likewise has an interest in being able to wield the services of Knox and Lesovsky on campaigns and on behalf of candidates of his choosing. Paule was the district director for Darrell Issa when Issa was a Congressman. In 2012, Paule ran for election to the California State Assembly in District 67. His campaign was co-chaired by Congressman Issa and former State Senator and Assemblyman Ray Haynes. That same year, he left Issa’s office and went to work for the then-newly elected James Ramos, who, though he was a Democrat, had been elected with the backing of the wing of the San Bernardino County Republican Party based in Redlands. Paule remained with Ramos’s office until July 2016, when he departed to serve as campaign manager for Issa in that year’s election. As the 2016 election season was drawing to a close, Paule was hired by Rutherford to serve as her chief of staff with the onset of 2017. Paule has also associated with a number of Republican Party heavyweights throughout California, including Issa, Cook, and Haynes; Congressman Doug LaMalfa, former Congress members Jeff Denham, Gary Miller, Mary Bono Mack and Mimi Walters; former state senators 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. Paule has been a board member with the East Municipal Water District in Riverside County since January 2007, after he was elected to represent the district’s Division 1 the November 2006 election. He has succeeded in warding off competition ever since and ran unopposed in 2010, 2014 and 2018.
Rowe, a former Yucca Valley Councilwoman, was closely associated with Chad Mayes, currently an assemblyman and formerly Yucca Valley mayor and himself formerly Rutherford’s chief of staff. Rowe has referenced Mayes as a mentor who encouraged her to become involved in politics. She associated as well with Cook, and was, until she resigned to accept the position as Third District supervisor, a member of his staff. While working for Cook, Rowe was a colleague to both Knox and Lesovsky. As a member of Cook’s staff in 2018, Rowe was aware of Knox’s and Lesovsky’s hit campaign against Donnelly.
In 2015, Lesovsky, while yet a member of Cook’s staff, was caught on video by the Project Veritas group acknowledging that campaign donations made to Cook could purchase influence, favorable votes and support from Cook on legislation impacting those donors. With regard to Boeing and Mitsubishi Cement, Lesovsky is heard on the audio portion of the video saying, “They are big campaign contributors of ours. You know, we’ll help them out.”
Cook and his office were embarrassed by the incident, which necessitated that the congressman make a show of distancing himself from Lesovsky, and Lesovsky was either terminated or resigned. Nevertheless, 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.
Both Paule and Knox recommended to Rowe that she install Lesovsky on her staff. Reports now are that Lovingood encouraged Rowe to hire Lesovsky and that Rutherford, either directly or through Paule, suggested that Lesovsky would make a welcome addition to her staff.
What has been suggested by both circumstance and observers is that Lovingood, Rowe and Rutherford, along with Lesovsky, Knox and Paule, are involved in an effort to construct a political shop on the fifth floor of the county administration complex dedicated in general to the promotion of Republican candidates in San Bernardino County, with the immediate specific focus being the 2020 campaigns of Supervisor Rowe in her effort to remain as Third District supervisor and Supervisor Lovingood in his electoral effort for whatever office he chooses to either retain or pursue.
Neither Lovingood, Rutherford, Rowe, Lesovsky, Knox or Paule were willing to comment with regard to the nature of the political operation that was being assembled in Rowe’s office. Neither Rutherford nor Lovingood responded to questions about their awareness of Knox’s and Lesovsky’s involvement in the Dirty Donnelly.com political hit during the 2018 election. Nor would Rutherford or Lovingood say whether they might consider a county ordinance, similar to that which exists at the federal level in the Hatch Act, prohibiting members of San Bernardino County’s supervisorial staffs from engaging in political activity relating to the election campaigns of their employers or employers’ colleagues, if such a restriction could be constructed in a way that is consistent with the U.S. Constitution.
Lovingood did not respond to questions about whether he intends to employ either Knox or Lesovsky in his 2020 campaign and he did not offer a response to the suggestion making the rounds in the county that he had gone along with Rowe’s hiring of Knox and Lesovsky because he stands to benefit by the assistance that Knox and Lesovsky will render him in his 2020 campaign.
Paule was unwilling to say whether he had recommended to Rowe that she hire Lesovsky and Knox, or if he and Supervisor Rutherford had any discussion with regard to Knox and Lesovsky prior to their hiring by Rowe.
Lesovsky directed all questions about the circumstance to Suzette Swallow, Rowe’s official spokeswoman. Swallow has not returned the Sentinel’s phone calls and Rowe’s staff has refused to provide Swallow’s email address to facilitate written communication with her.
Knox did not confirm reports or respond to questions relating to whether he is to work on behalf of Supervisor Rowe’s election campaign or if was already engaged in making preparations for the 2020 election. Nor would he say whether he intends work on any other political campaigns in 2020.
Asked by email if he saw any conflict between his role as chief of staff and his electioneering efforts on behalf of the supervisor, Knox did not answer. Knox would not comment on or speak with regard to the Dirty Donnelly.com element of the Cook campaign.
And Knox did not respond to whether reports that he was on the brink of resigning as Rowe’s chief of staff and taking Lesovsky with him in an effort to resurrect the supervisor’s reputation and good name.
Rutherford told the Sentinel, “I supported the appointment of Dawn Rowe as Third District supervisor because of her previous elected service, her outstanding application and interviews before the board, and her detailed knowledge of the policy issues facing that district. As with any supervisor, decisions about how to staff her office are up to her and any questions about why she chose particular individuals should be directed to her.”
David Wert, the county’s official public spokesman, this week offered a defense of the fashion in which Knox’s and Lesovsky’s hirings had been placed on the consent calendars for the meetings of the board of supervisors on January 8 and January 29. 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.
“Members of the board of supervisors and most certainly the clerk of the board do not determine whether agenda items appear under consent or discussion,” Wert wrote. “That process is handled by the county administrative office. And all items are consent unless there is a legal requirement to have them on discussion (public hearings, first readings of ordinances) or if the CEO or chairman of the board directs that they be placed on the discussion calendar. It doesn’t work in reverse. Discussion items are not placed on consent. As for board staff appointments, I can safely say that in nearly 30 years of covering the county as a reporter and working for the county as public information officer, never has a board staff appointment been moved to the discussion calendar.”
Rowe has not returned phone calls placed to her office and was not available at the county administrative building for an interview this week when the Sentinel thrice sought to speak with her there.
By Mark Gutglueck