By Mark Gutglueck
At times over the last two-and-a-half years, the factionalism and contention among the directors of the Rialto-based West Valley Water District has rivaled or exceeded that on all or nearly all other governing boards overseeing the 87 governmental entities or agencies in San Bernardino County. With the 2019 election approaching in which three positions on the water district’s board are up for election, both factions are seeking to assert control by blocking the reelection of the opposition and keeping their respective allies in office.
The contretemps in the district centers around Dr. Clifford Young, a California State University, San Bernardino professor and administrator who was selected in 2004 to serve as Fifth District county supervisor following Jerry Eaves’ forced resignation as the consequence of Eaves’ conviction on political corruption charges. For the better part of the next decade, Young contented himself with his academic role, but in 2013 returned to elective office when he was elected along with Linda Gonzalez to the West Valley Water District Board of Directors in a race that saw incumbents Don Olinger and Jackie Cox defeated.
A strong personality, Young, initially formulated alliances with his board colleagues upon moving into the post, eventually acceding to the position of board president. In due course, nonetheless, Young came into conflict with Alan Dyer, an incumbent whose presence on the board preceded Young’s, as well as Gonzalez. In most respects, throughout Young’s first and the initial part of his second term on the board, he and his fellow directors had few substantive differences with regard to the operational aspects of the district’s function, and the district’s personnel conformed, at least initially and for the most part, to the wishes, expectations and official instruction of Young and his fellow board members when acting collectively in their official capacity. To the extent that difficulty with Young’s comportment as a board member manifested, it related to what his supporters referred to as his decisive and assertive manner and what his critics called his megalomaniac approach, which at times involved his acting outside of official channels by telling, instructing or ordering staff to initiate action that had not yet been ratified by the board.
Young, a Republican, a relative rarity among African-Americans, particularly in California, endeavored to have the water district put its best foot forward in the arena of public perception, hiring two high-priced consultants closely identified with the GOP, political lobbyist William Lowery and public relations guru Patrick O’Reilly, both through no-bid contracts.
In 2015, Olinger was successful in his bid to return to the board, gaining election along with newcomer Greg Young, who is no blood relation to Clifford Young. Alan Dyer was the sole incumbent reelected in that race.
In 2017, Clifford Young was handily reelected, extending his coattails and endorsement to Michael Taylor, a Rialto resident and longtime Baldwin Park police officer who had risen to the top of his profession as that department’s police chief. Taylor displaced Gonzalez on the board. In the same election, Kyle Crowther was victorious in a specially-held contest to serve out the final two years remaining on Dyer’s term, which was necessitated after Dyer resigned. During his final two years in office, Dyer had been subjected to a series of investigations prompted by Clifford Young which were aimed at fleshing out an allegation that he no longer resided within the district’s boundaries after having sold his home in Rialto and having purchased one in Redlands. When his claim that he was renting a home within the district and yet residing there came under question, Dyer opted to leave. When Clifford Young, Greg Young, Don Olinger and Linda Gonzalez were unable to reach a consensus on his replacement, the county board of supervisors appointed Robert Bourland as his interim replacement. Bourland, however, failed to hold onto the position to which he was appointed, when Crowther, a Fontana School District police officer who had the backing of Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren, Fontana City Councilman Jesse Armendarez and Fontana political activist Phil Cothran and the assistance of Cliff Young in the form of shared electioneering resources, outdistanced him 1,640 votes or 54.85 percent to 1,350 votes or 45.15 percent in the November 2017 specially-called short term election to determine who would serve out the remainder of Dyer’s term.
Prior to the 2017 election, things were growing particularly testy between Young and Gonzalez, a circumstance that spilled over to involve some senior members of the water district staff, as Cliff Young had filed a Fair Political Practices Commission complaint against Gonzalez; the district’s former chief financial officer, Suzanne Cook, had filed a lawsuit against Cliff Young and the district, alleging Dr. Young had engaged in improper hiring and financial practices; and the district’s general manager, Matthew Litchfield, had filed a claim against the district, alleging Cliff Young was seeking to micromanage the district by directly dictating orders to him without first obtaining the consensus of the other four members of the board. To a greater or lesser degree during the 2017 political season, then-Chief Financial Officer Marie Ricci, then-Human Resources Manager Karen Logue, the board’s secretary, Shanae Smith, Litchfield and Litchfield’s wife had actively supported Gonzalez’s reelection effort while working against Cliff Young’s candidacy.
With his 2017 reelection, Cliff Young, appeared to be safely in control of the district for at least the next two years. Taylor, who like Young possesses a masters degree and a doctorate, fell, or so it appeared, within his camp. Greg Young, too, was a member of Cliff Young’s political machine. Olinger, who had been displaced in the 2013 election when Cliff Young and Gonzalez had made a clean sweep of Olinger and the other incumbent, Cox, appeared ready to dispense with whatever animus he felt toward Cliff Young over his defeat by him four years before as the district looked toward the future with its revamped political leadership in place. Nevertheless, Cook, Ricci, Logue, Smith and to a lesser extent Litchfield remained intent on raising questions about Cliff Young’s use of his expense account and the propriety of his comportment in office, efforts which Young’s supporters felt constituted efforts to undo the will of the voters.
On December 7, 2017 at a special meeting of the water district board, both Taylor and Crowther, as new members of the board, were sworn into office, and Cliff Young, as an incumbent, took the oath of office for another four years. Dr. Young, on a motion by Taylor and seconded by Greg Young, was appointed board president. Later in the meeting, on a motion by Taylor seconded by Crowther, the board by a 4-to-1 vote with Olinger in opposition, voted to hire Robert Tafoya of the law firm Tafoya & Garcia as the district’s new general legal counsel. Tafoya was also the city attorney for the City of Baldwin Park.
Four days later, at a specially called meeting of the board, on December 11, 2017, just one month and five days after his 2017 reelection, Cliff Young flexed his political muscle and moved to consolidate his power, effectuating a major makeover at the senior level of the district’s staff. While he succeeded in establishing that he could at that point translate his political primacy into immediate administrative authority, the event proved to be nothing short of an out-and-out Pyrrhic Donnybrook, although its full effect would not become apparent for more than a year. At that meeting, Young’s associate from Cal State San Bernardino, Robert Christman, who for a time had been the acting chief financial officer of the water district, had been installed as West Valley’s acting interim general manager. The board, by a margin of 3-to-1, with Taylor absent and Olinger dissenting, placed District General Manager Matthew Litchfield on administrative leave and outright terminated chief financial officer Marie Ricci.
The following day, at the first regular meeting of the newly composed board and with all five members present, assistant general manager Greg Gage, the district’s human resources manager Karen Logue and the board’s secretary, Shanae Smith, were all suspended or placed on administrative leave by a vote of 4-to-1, with Olinger casting the dissenting vote.
As Christman, a firm Clifford Young ally and former Loma Linda mayor, took the helm as the interim head of the district staff, most of those who were being displaced took their parting shots at Young and his political affiliates and fellow board members. Litchfield, perhaps mindful that vindictive enunciations about his erstwhile political masters uttered in the heat of anger might have long term negative consequences on his future professional prospects, eschewed public comment.
That was not the case with Logue and Smith, however, who suggested that Young had been playing fast and loose with district funds and perquisites, and had improperly influenced the hiring of district personnel. For Taylor and Crowther, what was their first regularly scheduled meeting in their newly-elected positions, the ordeal proved to be something of a baptism-by-fire, as the atmospherics were more indicative of a scene from Bedlam than a public meeting, and a handful of police that were present to maintain order were at one time obliged to remove several members of the public after the disruption of the proceedings careened into chaos.
Within three weeks, Gage had been reestablished into his position as assistant general manager with the district. The others who had been suspended were on their way out.
Over the next 12 months, the board members remained on cordial terms with one another, at least outwardly, as Young, Taylor, Young, Crowther and Olinger appeared to be more or less in virtual lockstep with regard to district issues, the only notable exceptions being some votes in which Olinger abstained; a measure to raise the board’s compensation, on which Greg Young was the lone dissenting vote; and votes to pay for the district’s special counsel to carry out investigations into former staff members’ accusations against Cliff Young, expenditures about which Dr. Young was less than enthusiastic. Nevertheless, though there was remarkable consonance in virtually all of the board’s votes over that period with regard to the decision-making processes relating to district operations, the board was beset with a degree of tension from the December 12, 2017 meeting onward.
The district employed a veritable who’s who of Southern California law firms over the ensuing timeframe in dealing with not only litigation and procedural actions relating to access to water availability that involved numerous other regional water purveyors, but claims and litigation the district became embroiled in with former employees. In addition to its general counsel, Tafoya & Garcia, the district at one time or another throughout 2018 was represented by the Kaufman Law Firm; Varner & Brandt; Larson O’Brien; Ziprick & Cramer; Albright, Yee & Schmidt; and Gresham, Savage, Nolan & Tilden.
In March 2018, the board rejected claims filed against it by Litchfield, Smith, Logue and Ricci alleging harassment and wrongful termination. Subsequently Logue and Litchfield filed unjustifiable termination suits against the district. Also that month, Baldwin Park City Councilman Pacheco was hired by the West Valley Water District as the “assistant general manager of external affairs.” Subsequently, Pacheco would be promoted to the position of assistant general manager.
In June 2018, with Olinger and Crowther absent, the board hired Clarence Mansell to serve as interim general manager to replace Christman.
In August 2018, Gage, having found employment elsewhere, departed from the district.
In October 2018, the board reorganized, appointing Michael Taylor board president and making Crowther vice president.
For much of the public, there were issues roiling below the surface that went completely unremarked. At the January 17, 2019 meeting of the board, the first overt hint of dissension among the board members was reflected on an item relating to a contract to renovate the customer service foyer at district headquarters. Both Cliff Young and Greg Young wanted to reject the awarding of a $567,000 contract to Caltec Corporation, which had been the low bidder on the project. Ultimately, both Young and Young, who asserted the pricing on the work was too high, were unable to convince their colleagues to hold off on the action, as they were defeated in a 3-to-2 vote.
The following month, at the February 7 board meeting, it grew clear that there was a rift on the board, and that it was widening. For starts, the board split 3-to-2, with Young and Young dissenting, to approve the district’s December 2018 purchase order report. There followed a 3-to-2 split over a $43,395.64 payment to Tafoya and Garcia for services rendered in October 2018, again with Young and Young at odds with their colleagues. That was followed by a 3-to-1 vote, with Greg Young in opposition and Dr. Young abstaining, to ratify a $32,679.10 payment to Tafoya & Garcia for services rendered in November 2018.
Thereafter, Dr. Young and Dr. Taylor locked horns on an item calling for the district to send a formal request to the state controller’s office to conduct a full financial audit of all of the West Valley Water District’s fiscal dealings over the previous two years, including all contracts and contractors used by legal counsel. Taylor suggested that instead of having the state auditor go over the district’s books, the district have the district’s previous auditing firm carry out the examination. When Greg Young insisted on the board voting on the original motion to seek the state audit, that motion failed 2-to-3. Taylor then motioned to have the district’s contract auditor carry out the audit to cover the period from the end of the last audit completed to the current date. That passed 3-to-0, with Young and Young abstaining.
From that point onward there have been a significant number of items that have come before the board on which Cliff Young has dissented or abstained, quite often, though not always, joined by Gregory Young, particularly with regard to issues relating to the district’s financial dealings and less often pertaining to operational issues.
At the board’s May 16, 2019 meeting, the agenda contained an item relating to the potential disciplining, removal or termination of Assistant General Manager Ricardo Pacheco. Before the board adjourned into closed session to undertake that discussion, however, Taylor made a motion to pull the item off of the discussion calendar and all five board members agreed to do so. At the June 7 meeting, the ill-will between the diverging factions on the board appeared to have hit a crescendo. With Dr. Young absent, all items considered by the board passed 3-to-1, with Greg Young voting against everything, including considering the agenda, adopting the consent calendar consisting of multiple essential, signatory changes on all of the district’s JP Morgan Chase, US. Bank and Caltrust accounts, another action related to the local agency investment fund, approving a change order on a contract by Aerotek for temporary labor service, and a change order on a well rehabilitation project. Greg Young maintains he was compelled to dissent on those votes because the agenda for the meeting and the accompanying staff reports and back-up materials had not been made available the requisite 72 hours in advance to allow the board and the public an adequate opportunity to examine and evaluate those actions.
On June 20, with Dr. Young once more absent, Greg Young was again the dissenting vote on all issues that came before the board relating to financial issues.
In June, the degree to which the relationship between Clifford Young and several of the others within the district had degraded loomed into sharp relief with the revelation that on February 19, 2019, Clifford Young, West Valley Water District Chief Financial Officer Naisha Davis and West Valley Water District Assistant Board Secretary Patricia Romero as plaintiffs, represented by attorneys Rachel Fiset and Erin Coleman of the law firm Zweibach, Fiset & Coleman, had filed, under seal, a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court, referred to as a qui tam action, which alleged West Valley Water District General Counsel Robert Tafoya and his law firm, Tafoya & Garcia; West Valley Water District Special Counsel Clifton Albright and his law firm, Albright, Yee & Schmit; West Valley Water District Special Counsel Martin Kaufman and his law firm; and West Valley Water District consultant Robert Katherman, as defendants, had violated the California False Claims Act. In the suit, Michael Taylor, Assistant West Valley General Manager Ricardo Pacheco, West Valley Water District Board Vice President Kyle Crowther and West Valley Water District General Manager Clarence Mansell were identified as co-conspirators.
A writ of qui tam is a private individual’s or individuals’ petition, who is or are claiming to be of assistance in a possible prosecution, for a court order against those the petitioner or petitioners alleges or allege have engaged in prohibited acts. The petitioner in a qui tam action can receive all or part of any penalty imposed on those adjudged guilty. The name qui tam is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase qui tam pro domino rege quam pro se ipso in hac parte sequitur, meaning “[he] who sues in this matter for the king as well as for himself.”
The qui tam suit in and of itself embodies a paradox that presents a further dilemma and conundrum for the district and its board members. The suit names the district as a plaintiff despite the consideration that the district board never voted to file the suit and, in fact, three of the board’s members – Taylor, Crowther and Olinger – are adamantly opposed to the prosecution of the suit, disagree with the upshot of the suit, and have not empowered the law firm Zweibach, Fiset & Coleman, nor Rachel Fiset nor Erin Coleman to act on the district’s behalf. According to Coleman, however, Young’s, Davis’s and Romero’s assertions of whistleblower status taken together with the nature of the false claim allegations they are making against the defendants endow the complainants with the legal entitlement to sue on behalf of the district and its constituents.
The lawsuit alleged that Taylor, who was chief of the Baldwin Park Police Department from 2013 to 2016, had been terminated by the Baldwin Park City Council but was subsequently re-hired to a one-year contract to again serve as Baldwin Park police chief on December 1, 2017, some 25 days after being elected to the water board and six days before he was sworn in. Taylor’s contract to resume his duties as police chief was drafted by Tafoya, who was also Baldwin Park’s city attorney, according to the lawsuit. Upon being sworn in as a water board member and assuming his duties in that capacity on December 7, 2018, according to the suit, Taylor effectuated the hiring Tafoya as the West Valley Water District’s general counsel on a contract with no end date. In the ensuing 18 months, according to the lawsuit, Tafoya’s firm billed the West Valley Water District approximately $395,000.
Further, according to the suit, less than four months later, after Taylor assumed his position on the West Valley Water Board dais, Pacheco, a Baldwin Park City Councilman who had voted for Taylor’s reinstatement as police chief, was hired by the West Valley Water District as the “assistant general manager of external affairs.” He was later moved without board approval to the newly created position of “assistant general manager,” earning a salary of $192,000 per year, the suit alleges. Since his hiring, Pacheco and the California Education Coalition PAC he controls have donated a total of $8,000 to Taylor’s campaign and $1,000 to West Valley Water District Board Vice President Kyle Crowther’s campaign, according to the lawsuit.
According to the suit, in 2018, Taylor spearheaded the effort to hire his associate, Mansell, as the West Valley Water District’s interim general manager and subsequently as the permanent general manager, at an annual salary of $225,000. The lawsuit alleges Mansell was hired by a 3-to-2 board vote without a recruitment effort.
The lawsuit alleges that in 2017 and 2018, Tafoya provided Taylor with travel and accommodations in Mexico and Las Vegas, paid for Taylor, Crowther and Cliff Young to travel to Arizona, twice paid for Crowther’s airfare to Florida and made contributions to Crowther’s and Taylor’s campaign war chests or otherwise assisted them in their campaigns. Tafoya further militated or lobbied on behalf of Albright, Yee & Schmit, the Kaufman Law firm and Robert Katherman in getting the two former entities legal work for the water district and a consulting contract for the latter while those firms and/or their principals were providing gifts, travel accommodations, entertainment and political contributions to members of the water board, in particular Taylor and Crowther, the suit alleges. According to the suit, Taylor, Tafoya, Pacheco, Crowther, Mansell, West Valley Water District Human Resources and Risk Manager Deborah Martinez and other law firms and consultants connected to Taylor and Tafoya “have engaged in illegal kickbacks and bribes to ensure contracts with the district and subsequent approval of invoices for payment.”
Maribel S. Medina, representing the West Valley Water District as a real party in interest in the lawsuit, on July 9, 2019 filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, accompanied by a memorandum of points and authorities, a declaration and exhibits.
In general, Medina’s overarching suggestion is that Dr. Cliff Young, who was subject to complaints by Litchfield, Gonzalez, Ricci, Logue, Smith and ultimately Mansell of improperly seeking to extend his authority beyond the limitations of his statutory power as a single vote on the water district’s five-member board of directors by making direct orders to staff, had grown discomfited by his inability to quash the internal district investigations those complaints triggered. The investigations into those accusations were carried out, in large measure, by the Kaufman Law Firm. In this way, the suit implies the qui tam action is a reprisal by Young and those he is affiliated with against Mansell and the district’s political leadership – i.e., the board – for allowing Litchfield’s, Gonzalez’s, Ricci’s, Logue’s and Smith’s accusations to persist without being controverted by official district action.
According to Medina, the suit, filed under the auspices of the California False Claims Act, fails to meet the legal requirements of such an action and exists rather as a politically-angled hit piece that lodges spurious allegations of corruption against the members of the board who, over the roughly one year period after the 2017 election, had evolved toward resisting Dr. Clifford Young’s improper overreach in dominating and micromanaging the district utilizing his status by asserting authority outside his legitimate role and capacity as an elected member of the board. The qui tam lawsuit neither establishes that the defendants and their named co-conspirators acted in collusion or in secret, according to Medina, nor does it delineate any information or true or false accusations that were not publicly known previously. “The allegations in the complaint consist of sensationalized facts taken directly from negative news media articles,” the motion to dismiss states. “The purpose of the California False Claims Act is to expose undetected fraud, in order to guard the public. By [the] relators’ own admission this case has nothing to do with fraud, let alone any interest in protecting the district’s financial interest. [The] Relators declare, repeatedly in their various motions that this lawsuit was brought ‘to expose corruption at the district,’ and ‘expose a scheme of kickbacks and bribes.’ Consequently, as a California False Claims Act claim, the complaint is facially and fatally flawed.”
As used by Medina, “relator” is a term meaning plaintiff in a California False Claims Act case, as someone who has related a set of facts upon which the lawsuit is based.
“The fact is, this lawsuit has nothing to do with exposing fraud,” according to Medina. “It is the proverbial wolf dressed in sheep clothing. This lawsuit was brought in an attempt to interfere with ongoing investigations of harassment, bullying and misappropriation of public monies by relator Dr. Young, who has been represented by relators’ legal counsel Rachel Fiset in the ongoing investigations. This lawsuit is frivolous, vexatious and brought solely for the purpose of harassment. Under such circumstances, the district hereby moves to dismiss the California False Claims Act claim. On November 29, 2017, four district executives sent the district’s then general manager Matthew Litchfield a memo titled, ‘Director Clifford Young Sr. Activities.’ The memo outlined in significant detail examples of relator Dr. Young’s ‘grossly abusing his power and misappropriating public funds for his own personal benefit.’ On December 7, 2017, Marie Ricci, the district’s chief financial officer sent a complaint via email to the San Bernardino District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit also alleging relator Dr. Young engaged in unethical and illegal conduct. On or about January 11, 2018, the Kaufman Law Firm, APC was retained by the district to investigate allegations made against relator Dr. Young that he harassed, bullied and abused former General Manager Matthew Litchfield. Mr. Litchfield further alleged that relator Dr. Young gave him a list of people to hire and terminate under threat of retaliation. On or about the latter part of 2018, the district again retained The Kaufman Law Firm to investigate various complaints made by district employees against relator Dr. Young by alleged co-conspirators current General Manager Clarence C. Mansell and Deborah Martinez. The investigation concluded, [the] relator, Dr. Young, subjected Mr. Mansell and Ms. Martinez to ‘conduct which was harassing, intimidating and hostile.’ Relators’ legal counsel, Rachel Fiset, from the law firm of Zweiback, Fiset & Coleman, LLP served as legal counsel to relator Dr. Young during the investigation. On February 19, 2019, relators also served the California Attorney General’s office with the complaint and statutorily mandated ‘written disclosures of substantially all material evidence and information per §§12652(c)(2)-(3).’ Blatantly missing from the packet of material evidence submitted to the Attorney General is all the correspondence from the Fair Political Practices Commission, including the Fair Political Practices Commission’s final notice that they had concluded the investigation and would not be proceeding with any action.”
Medina’s reference to the Fair Political Practices Commission pertains to a complaint filed by Romero in early January which covered much of the same ground as that contained in the lawsuit, specifically alleging that the donations, gifts, travel expenses, accommodations and/or political donations provided to Taylor and/or Crowther by Tafoya; Albright, Yee & Schmit; the Kaufman Law firm and Robert Katherman constituted violations of the California Political Reform Act of 1974.
“Although, statutorily the district must have been provided a copy of the complaint and material evidence 15 days after the Attorney General receives it, the district was not,” according to Medina. “The district became aware of the qui tam lawsuit only after the seal was lifted, when the named defendants were served with the complaint. On March 19, 2019, Deputy Attorney General Joseph Kanada, sent the packet of material evidence with a cover letter addressed to ‘West Valley Water District-Board of Directors, Attn: Don Olinger.’ Director Olinger is one of five members of the board of directors. Although the salutation was addressed ‘Dear Board,’ no other board member received the packet. The letter to Director Olinger from Deputy Attorney General Kanada had the notation, ‘Under Seal’ in capital letters and large font. Nowhere in the letter was Director Olinger informed that he would be the only board member receiving the packet. In fact, in bold letters were the following directives, ‘We therefore request that you keep the existence of this action and the enclosures to this letter confidential. Within your organization this case should only be disclosed on a need to know basis. This case should not be listed on any public agenda or discussed in open sessions during any meetings.’ Not only was Director Olinger not informed he was being given the packet as a representative of the entity, he was directed not to share the documents or the substance of the information with anyone. Further he was directed not to agendize this item for discussion. The Brown Act, governing how public officials communicate on matters within their subject matter jurisdiction, prohibits communication without properly listing the item for discussion on a publicly accessible agenda. The seal was lifted without the district even knowing the lawsuit had been filed. Upon learning of the lawsuit and retrieving from the court website a copy of the complaint, special counsel for the district contacted relators’ legal counsel advising her of the fact that the district was never properly served with the complaint or packet of material evidence. Relators’ legal counsel acknowledged knowing that the only individual who received a copy of the packet was Director Olinger, but she asserted that board members and the top executives ‘were conflicted’ from reviewing the information because they were listed as defendants or co-conspirators in the complaint. In addition, Relators’ questionable manner in handling this lawsuit is most evident in their refusal to provide the district, the public entity they are allegedly representing, the packet of material evidence. Rather than simply providing the evidence purportedly supporting their claim, relators’ legal counsel sent a letter asserting it was the Attorney General’s obligation to provide the public entity the material evidence.”
In an email she sent to California Deputy Attorney General Emily Kalanithi on June 11, Medina indicates she was informed that the California Attorney General’s Office, upon review of materials previously sent it on behalf of Cliff Young, Davis and/or Romero or all three, had declined to take action against any of the defendants or identified co-conspirators in the subsequently-filed qui tam suit.
According to Medina, the billings that Tafoya and his firm; Albright, Yee & Schmit; the Kaufman Law Firm; and Robert Katherman made to the district were legitimate invoices for services that were actually rendered. In this way, the central premise of the legal action Young, Davis and Romero have filed is invalid, Medina insists, as no false claim was ever made by Tafoya; Albright, Yee & Schmit; the Kaufman Law Firm; and Robert Katherman.
“This notion was apparently not obvious for this lawsuit,” according to Medina.
“The California False Claims Act attaches liability, not to the underlying fraudulent activity or to the government’s wrongful payment, but to the claim for payment,” according to Medina’s motion for dismissal. “A ‘claim’ under the California False Claims Act is a ‘demand for money that induces the government to disburse funds or to otherwise suffer immediate financial detriment.’ [The] relators here allege in general and conclusory terms a ‘scheme of illegal kickbacks and bribes’ and somehow leapfrog to therefore named defendants ‘presented false claims for payment.’ But [the] relators fail to identify a single false claim. Instead, by [the] relators’ own admission, ‘Qui tam plaintiffs filed this action in order to shed light on the board’s corruption and misappropriation of public funds.’”
The plaintiffs were obliged to plead the case with specificity, according to Medina, meaning they had to lay out exactly what false claim the defendants had made. They were unable to do so, Medina said, because no false or fraudulent billing had taken place. “Relators do not even come close to meeting the ‘who, what, when, where and how,’” according to Medina. “In the 77 paragraphs of the complaint, relators do not identify a single false claim for reimbursement, let alone specify who did what. In fact, Relators do not even distinguish between the role of the named defendants or the named co-conspirators, which alone is a fatal flaw. The specificity requirement of the California False Claims Act requires separate allegations for each defendant and co-conspirator and not merely lumping multiple defendants together.” Medina cited the decision in the case of US v. Corinthian Colleges, which stated, “In the context of a fraud suit involving multiple defendants, a plaintiff must, at a minimum, identify the role of each defendant in the alleged fraudulent scheme.”
The suit by Young, Davis and Romero inaccurately portrays the provision of gifts and political donations as being secretly conducted, according to Medina. “Relators also assert that the political contributions made by the named defendants to the members of the board of directors is evidence of this scheme of kickbacks and bribes,” according to Medina’s motion. Making reference to campaign disclosure statements filed by Board President Taylor and Director Crowther that were cited as exhibits in the qui tam suit, Medina notes that disclosure of the donations were made and that Dr. Young was himself a political contributor to Taylor’s campaign.
“Not only is this not fraud, but the California Supreme Court has held, “[p]olitical contribution involves exercise of fundamental freedom protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 1 of the California Constitution,” according to Medina.
Of at least academic interest is at what point the once cordial relationship and political alliance between Cliff Young and Michael Taylor evaporated. Though the votes on the board betrayed no overt hostility until March, there is evidence to suggest those in Dr. Young’s circle were militating against Taylor and Crowther by late December 2018 or perhaps earlier.
The Sentinel has obtained a letter dated January 4, 2019 written by Romero to the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit. That letter states, in part, “I have been a witness to the GM [general manager] Mr. Mansell and President Dr. Taylor tak[ing] authoritarian power from our CFO [chief financial officer] Naisha Davis over the finances and accounts payable and hand the responsibility to an uncertified personnel, Director of LT [business services] and Finance Jon Stephenson, and divert all money movement through the purchasing department with no qualified CPA [certified public accountant] and having Executive Assistant Melissa Blount oversee a lot of transactions regarding the allocating of funds to the consultants, [who] have not provided services and proper invoices for services render[ed] to our district for work product produced. Checks are being made out to consultants with no work product produce[d] or tracked. I have heard and seen consultant Rob Katherman on several occasion outside my office ask the Engineering Manager Linda Jedeski about our reserve funds. This is suspicious and alarming in nature.”
While the qui tam suit alleges Mansell was hired by a 3-to-2 board vote without a recruitment effort, background checks, or other standard hiring reviews, the minutes of the June 21, 2018 meeting indicate that Mansell was hired on a 3-to-0 vote during the board’s closed session, with Young, Young and Taylor voting in support of the hiring and both Olinger and Crowther absent.
Though the suit cites Taylor as having hired Tafoya as the West Valley Water District’s general counsel, Tafoya’s hiring was supported by Cliff Young, who was the board president at the time.
Fiset and Coleman assert that Dr. Young, as a plaintiff in the suit; Taylor and Crowther as named co-conspirators in the original suit; and the Tafoya and Garcia law firm, as defendants in the suit, are “conflicted” in terms of their ability to engage in any part of the decision-making or voting process with regard to action the district takes in response to the suit, and thus cannot vote on the matter or offer the district counsel or advice relating to the suit. Fiset and Coleman have asserted that Taylor and Crowther as well as Robert Tafoya have engaged in conflicts of interest in their official action on behalf of the district in response to the suit. In an amended complaint to the suit filed with the court, Fiset and Coleman have elevated Taylor and Crowther from the status of named co-conspirators to defendants, alleging against them violations of Government Code Section 1090, engaging in a conflict of interest.
While the case was earlier scheduled to be heard in the Los Angeles Superior Court courtroom of Judge Ruth Kwan, there is a pending motion by Fiset and Coleman to have the matter categorized as a “complex case,” so that it will be assigned to Judge Yvette Palazuelos, who in addition to being a judge is a renowned legal scholar. The presiding judge rendered a tentative determination that the matter qualifies as a complex case. Judge Palazuelos is, however, temporarily off the bench, and therefore Judge David Cunningham will be initially presiding over the matter. The district filed an opposition to the complex case designation, arguing that the lawsuit is fatally flawed on its face since it does not identify any or even a single false claim and therefore the motion to designate the case complex is simply a delay tactic by the qui tam plaintiffs. The district has also argued that qui tam plaintiffs are legally precluded from requesting the complex case designation since the West Valley Water District intervened and is therefore prosecuting the case. Albright, Yee and Schmit has also filed an opposition to the complex case designation. The tentative decision to catalog the suit as a complex case has not yet been confirmed.
Of issue in the case and the overarching circumstance is timing. It is the observation of those familiar with the circumstance that the very existence of the lawsuit and the accusations of which it is composed are of potential damage to Crowther and his candidacy for reelection this year and represent a challenge to Olinger in his reelection campaign this year as well, given his closer affiliation on the board with Taylor and Crowther than with Cliff Young. The motion to dismiss was going to heard by Judge Kwan on September 19, 2019. That hearing has now been postponed in anticipation of a case status conference that will not be held until October 8, 2019. Those who perceive the qui tam case as lacking in merit maintain that it is a political ploy to influence the outcome of this year’s board election.
“Both the facts and the law, as they stand today, support an immediate dismissal of this case,” the district’s official spokesman, Steve Lambert, told the Sentinel.
An indication of how serious the stakes are for those involved in the district’s upcoming election in which Olinger, Greg Young and Crowther are competing to hang onto their respective positions can be seen in the effort by a West Valley Water District employee to obtain a restraining order against Greg Young that began last month and which has yet to be settled.
Naseem Farooqi, who is the public affairs manager with the water district, maintains that Greg Young grew so angry with him that Young made a threat to kill him.
The Sentinel is informed the fracas evolved out of a press release that Farooqi authored on behalf of the district and distributed. The press release in question apparently referenced a vote by the water board, and Greg Young objected to what he says was a factual error in the release, which stated that he had voted against the item being voted on when in fact he had abstained from voting.
Greg Young’s alleged threat came during a San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee meeting at which they were both in attendance. Farooqi maintains that while Young was upbraiding him about the error in the press release, Young threatened to kill him.
Farooqi said he had petitioned the court for a restraining order against Gregory Young because “I take all threats of this nature very seriously.” Queried as to whether what Greg Young had engaged in was simply a matter of overstatement or hyperbole, Farooqi said, “It was not a joke. Director Greg Young was very angry and threatened me out of anger.”
The matter came before Judge Barry Plotkin on the morning of July 31, as an ex-parte hearing.
Both Farooqi and Young under oath provided their version of events to the court, with Young having been advised of his 5th Amendment rights. Thereafter, the court went into recess to allow Farooqi to call a witness, a district employee, Socorro Pantaleon. When the hearing resumed at 1:38 p.m. Pantaleon offered her testimony. An exhibit was marked for identification and entered into evidence.
During the hearing, an individual identified as Christian Dustin Duarte who was in the company of Farooqi took a photograph of the counsel table. Judge Plotkin, noting that taking photographs in the courtroom was unlawful, had a bailiff escort Duarte from the courtroom and excluded him from being present at the proceedings. After the testimony was concluded, Judge Plotkin denied the immediate granting of a restraining order, but ordered both parties to return on August 27 to see if a restraining order would be entered at that time.
This week, on Tuesday, August 27, both Farooqi and Young returned to court, where the hearing on the matter had been transferred to the courtroom of Judge Janet Frangie. Young was represented by his attorney, Thomas Pratt. Frangie stayed the granting of a restraining order, continuing the matter to September 16 to allow Young to file a formal response to Farooqi’s petition. She also issued an order for Gary Grossich, who was present at the Republican Central Committee meeting when the alleged threat was said to have occurred, to be present to testify at the September 16 hearing. The Sentinel has learned that Grossich is prepared to testify that he heard Young utter no threat to Farooqi and that he saw Farooqi willingly and cordially carrying on a conversation with Young.
“Despite Mr. Farooqi’s claim, I never admitted to making a threat,” Greg Young told the Sentinel. “I clearly told the judge that I did not recall all of the conversation and do not recall ever saying that I was ‘going to kill him.’ Furthermore, I certainly never said it three times in a row as he claims. The judge had to have a political associate of Mr. Farooqi removed from the court for attempting to take pictures of me during the hearing. Christopher Dustin Duarte is a friend and political associate of Mr. Farooqi.”
Young said he believed Duarte intended to use the photos he had sought to take “to make the whole proceedings into a political circus and have something my opponents can use against me in the campaign.”
By Mark Gutglueck