By Mark Gutglueck
In a series of coordinated actions, the political team which has coalesced around Congressman Paul Cook this week has moved to sew up three of the most powerful political offices in San Bernardino County’s desert area, with rumored reports that another member of Cook’s Republican machine will soon move to stake a claim on a fourth elected office.
While the timing of the moves was clearly intended to present a powerful and overwhelming front and thereby ward off potential rivals for the positions, an unforeseen ruling handed down by a Superior Court judge on Wednesday which essentially bounced one of the clique’s members from office held the potential for complicating the political plan of attack that all of the parties were hoping might be carried off seamlessly and with aplomb. Most significantly, the court ruling might wrest from at least two of the bloc’s electioneering operatives their comfortable governmental sinecures, such that they will no longer be able to carry out their electioneering function under the cover of being employed by the county.
This week, it appeared that Congressman Cook, Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, County Supervisor Dawn Rowe and Supervisor Robert Lovingood had orchestrated a game of political musical chairs in which all four had pretty solid assurance they would be able to hog all of the seating arrangements. Four weeks ago, Supervisor Robert Lovingood, who has been First District supervisor since 2012, set the table for the makeover of the Cook Political Machine when he announced that he will not seek reelection as supervisor in 2020. Shortly thereafter, without making a hard commitment, Cook said that he was mulling leaving Congress and instead seeking to replace Lovingood as First District supervisor.
Cook, a career Marine officer who served for 26 years before retiring as a colonel in 1992, had settled in Yucca Valley while he was assigned to the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base. In the immediate aftermath of his retirement he found employment as the director of the Yucca Valley Chamber of Commerce, then ran for the Yucca Valley Town Council, was elected and acceded to the position of mayor. In the meantime, he earned a master’s degree in political science at the University of California at Riverside. In 2006, he successfully vied for the California Assembly representing the 65th District, was reelected twice and served in that capacity for six years. In 2012, he stood for election to the U.S. Congress representing the newly drawn 8th Congressional District, which encompasses more than half of the eastern desert regions of California, including all of Inyo and Mono counties and more than 90 percent of the land mass of San Bernardino County, extending to all of its desert region and the cities of Yucaipa, Big Bear, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms, Needles, Barstow, Adelanto, Apple Valley, Hesperia and Victorville. As the 8th is a Republican-leaning district, by his incumbency Cook’s hold on the position at least until the redrawing of Congressional districts in 2022 following the 2020 Census was virtually assured for as long as he was willing to remain in office. At the age of 76, however, and with lingering health challenges, Cook has become less patient with the constant travel between California and Washington, D.C. that being a member of the House of Representatives requires, and for that reason, for him it was not unthinkable that he could just depart as a member of Congress, with its $174,000 per year salary and health, travel, tax deduction and retirement benefits valued at more than $100,000 per year, trading that lifestyle in on being a member of the board of supervisors, which provides $151,193.17 in salary, another $25,000 in other forms of pay, and $95,000 in benefits for a total annual compensation of $271,193.17. This week, on Tuesday September 17, Cook made it official, announcing he would not seek reelection next year and would rather vie to replace Lovingood. That would require that by next year he move from his official residence in Yucca Valley, which is in San Bernardino County’s Third Supervisorial District, to the First District, which includes Needles, Apple Valley, Victorville, Hesperia, and Adelanto, all of which are places he now represents as a Congressman, so that he will be able to deflect any carpetbagging accusations a political foe might throw his way.
33rd District Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, who had publicly stated when Lovingood made his announcement in August that he would respect whatever decision Cook made about his political future and that he would again support Cook if the former Marine colonel were to seek reelection to Congress but that he was also open to filling the void in the 8th Congressional District if Cook were to opt out of the House of Representatives, almost immediately announced he was a candidate for Congress in the 8th Congressional District after Cook declared his intentions on Tuesday. The same day, Dawn Rowe, who like Cook had once been a member of the Yucca Valley Town Council and later went to work for Cook as one of his congressional office staffers and who was appointed to fill the vacancy in the county’s Third Supervisorial District last December after former Supervisor James Ramos resigned that post to accede to the position of 40th District California assemblyman following his election last November, officially reaffirmed that she would run in 2020 to retain that office. It was widely anticipated that Lovingood would in short order announce that he was going to run in the 33rd Assembly District to replace Obernolte.
On the following day, Wednesday, September 18, however, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Janet Frangie entered her ruling in a lawsuit that had been filed on December 31, 2018 by Michael Daly and a Democratic Party activist group known as IE United against supervisors Robert Lovingood, Curt Hagman, Janice Rutherford and Josie Gonzales, challenging their appointment of Rowe to replace Ramos. In her statement of decision, Frangie sustained all of the elements of Daly’s petition for a writ of mandate which asserted the board had violated the Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law in accepting 48 applications for the Third District supervisorial position and then voting in secret on December 10, 2018 without interviewing any of the candidates to first reduce the appointment field to 13, then failing to cure and correct that violation and then appointing Rowe through a one-sided selection process which again violated the Brown Act on December 18. Judge Frangie ruled that the appointment of Rowe is thus null and void. She entered an order that the board of supervisors rescind Rowe’s appointment and that the selection of a replacement Third District county supervisor, in compliance with the county’s charter and state law now that more than 30 days following Ramos’ vacation of the office has taken place, be entrusted to the governor.
Judge Frangie’s ruling seriously untracked the strategy to send Obernolte to the nation’s capital, Lovingood to Sacramento, ensure that Cook is elected First District supervisor and keep Rowe in place in the Third District.
Before Rowe was designated as Ramos’s successor and while she was a member of Cook’s staff, she had been a colleague of Matt Knox and Dillon Lesovsky, both of whom also worked for Cook. In 2015, while at a convention, Lesovsky 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 donors putting up the money. “Big campaign contributors of ours… you know, we’ll help them out,” Lesovsky can be heard saying on the video. To minimize the fallout, Lesovsky left Cook’s employ, Nevertheless, Cook prevailed upon Lovingood to hire Lesovsky as a member of his staff. In 2018, Lesovsky, in conjunction with Knox, generated what within the electioneering profession is referred to as “political attack” or “political hit” material relating to Congressman Paul Cook’s strongest opponent in his race for reelection that year, former California Assemblyman Tim Donnelly. Despite both Cook and Donnelly being Republicans, they faced off against each other in the November general election after having placed first and second, respectively, in California’s open primary voting in the June 2018 race in California’s 8th Congressional District, leaving the two Democratic candidates in the race to claim third and fourth place.
Traditionally, Republicans adhere to what is called “the 11th Commandment,” which admonishes members of the GOP, “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” In 2018, however, the Cook Team was willing to dispense with that prohibition 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.
Knox and Lesovsky devoted themselves to 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.
While the identities of those behind Dirty Donnelly.com were unknown to the populace in general, those in Republican Party circles recognized the site as the handiwork of Lesovsky and Knox.
The prime mover in getting Rowe appointed Third District supervisor in December 2018 had been Lovingood, who was assisted in some measure by Phil Paule, who is Supervisor Rutherford’s chief of staff and who was formerly the district director for Darrell Issa when Issa was a Congressman. Lovingood put on a full court press to get his other Republican colleagues on the board to go along with getting Rowe in place on the supervisors’ dais with them. Paule had no difficulty at all convincing his boss, Rutherford, to support Rowe. Curt Hagman, the other Republican on the board, took only minimal convincing. Hagman is a bail bondsman, one-time Chino Hills councilman and later mayor and was subsequently a member of the California Assembly between 2008 and 2014, at which point he had to leave the state legislature because of term limits. In his last year-and-a-half in Sacramento, Hagman and his then chief of staff, the late Mike Spence, set their sights on his making a seamless transition from the California Assembly to another high paying and powerful political position, ultimately deciding on the position of Fourth District San Bernardino County supervisor, which oversees Chino Hills, Chino, Montclair, Ontario, Guasti and that portion of Upland below Foothill Boulevard.
To effectuate his election as Fourth District supervisor, Hagman had to bring about the removal of the incumbent, another Republican, Gary Ovitt. Ovitt had a firm grip on the post and was not obliged until 2018 to step down from the supervisor’s office because of the three-term limit that had first gone into effect with regard to the board of supervisors after 2006. Hagman strong-armed Ovitt out of the way by first deposing Robert Rego as the chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, which Hagman accomplished while he was yet in the Assembly in 2013. From that position of power, in which he had tremendous sway over how Republican Party dollars would be doled out, he intimated a battle royal would ensue with Ovitt in the 2014 election, one in which Hagman, working as San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee chairman, would cut off all party funding to Ovitt and instead divert it to himself. Simultaneously, while the Fourth District’s voter registration numbers had already shifted in favor of the Democrats, then-Congresswoman Gloria Negrete-McLeod, a Democrat, was opting out of running for reelection to Congress and was herself seeking the position of Fourth District supervisor. Faced with the prospect of having to head into a bruising battle with Hagman in that year’s primary election that would divide the Republican vote, favoring and strengthening the Democrat Negrete-Mcleod, Ovitt bowed out. Thus able to concentrate their firepower on Negrete-Mcleod, Hagman and his lead political operative, Mike Spence, who was also his chief of staff in his assemblyman’s office, was able to marshal enough force, fueled by the monetary backing of the San Bernardino County Republican Party, to defeat the retiring Democratic congresswoman in the race for supervisor, despite the district’s voter registration numbers tiding in favor of the Democrats in the Fourth District. Upon assuming office as supervisor, Hagman appointed Spence to serve as his chief of staff.
Hagman was able to engineer a similar victory for reelection as supervisor in 2018. Along the way, he has lost the services of Spence, who died earlier this year. Accustomed to operating ruthlessly wherever politics is concerned, and facing even tougher prospects for reelection in 2022 as the Fourth District is growing ever more Democratic, Hagman recognized the practicality of going along with the Cook/Lovingood/Rutherford game plan of establishing Rowe, who’s résumé included a stint on the post-Paul Cook Yucca Town Council, as the Third District county supervisor.
Rowe did not disappoint her sponsors. After her December 18 appointment, she moved to flesh out her district staff. She hired Knox as her chief of staff and Lesovsky as her policy advisor.
Rowe, a war widow whose Marine Corps captain husband was killed in Iraq during an operation in Anbar Province in 2004, is highly reluctant to demonstrate independence of thought, will and action, and has proven highly malleable to the direction of those with whom she has associated. An illustration of this came during the selection process for Third District supervisor in December. Over the course of several days of hearings before the board, the degree to which Rowe was willing to alter her personal guideposts to match the expectations of those who are now her board colleagues was put in sharp relief.
At the December 11, 2018 board meeting, Lovingood asked her, “If you receive the appointment, would it be your intent to run again or is that something to be decided midstream? Where are you on that thought?”
Rowe responded, “So, when my husband died I stopped planning. I had a great plan that extended out into my retirement years and long term planning for me [now] is about six months. So, right or wrong, it is where God has taken me in my life, and I have no plans necessarily to seek election. Could it be possible if the citizens maybe advocate for that if I was doing an effective job as the appointed supervisor? Possibly, but it’s not necessarily a part of my plan.”
A week later, Tuesday December 18, Supervisor Gonzales said, “It came to my attention, whether it was gossip, or innuendo or scuttlebutt, that somehow you were being prompted or promoted to submit your application because it was Congressman Cook’s intent to run for Third District supervisor in 2020 and that you would be used as a placeholder. I called Congressman Cook and I spoke to him. I spoke to him very directly about my concern. He assured me that he did not have any intent to throw his hat in the ring for Third District supervisor in the year 2020.”
Rowe responded, “I was asked if I would run again outside this board. In going forward I was asked the same question here, ‘Would I seek election to this seat in 2020?’ My answer, truly from the heart is, ‘I really don’t like to plan long term because it is painful when it doesn’t happen. However, I said, in all candor, and I used [former Yucca Valley Mayor and current 42nd District Assemblyman] Chad Mayes and Paul Cook; I said I would like to run for the seat, but you never know what happens in politics. Who is to say that for example – and this was a private conversation that was apparently repeated or through gossip or however it came to your knowledge or was repeated differently – but what happens when someone like Congressman Cook or Assemblyman Mayes change course in their careers and they decide they should seek that seat, I would absolutely defer to their experience and what they would bring to the table and I would not run again, in that example. That was an answer I gave to a colleague of mine. I was being truthful at that time. I would not run against them for this position, when we were talking. I felt I was being deferential to their experience coming back to the county level.”
Gonzales pressed her, asking, “So, for the record, you are saying you would not run against Congressman Cook or Assembly Member Chad Mayes?”
Rowe sought to deflect the question, saying “Wouldn’t that be spicy? I’m not saying that for the record. I was asked that last week.”
Gonzales did not let up, saying, “I’m asking you that now.”
Rowe, who by that point had been fully brought up to speed on the importance of the Republican Party maintaining its edge against the Democrats in San Bernardino County and the advantage of working from a position of incumbency and the desirability of having governmental offices from which to work as a base during electioneering efforts, said, “I would certainly run against either of them.”
Shortly after Rowe made that statement, she was voted by the board into office.
Rowe is valued by Cook, Obernolte, Lovingood and Hagman in substantial measure because she has less regard, apparently, than do they for the potential legal consequences of running political operations out of her office. Her acceptance of Lesovsky and Knox, given their bona fides as political dirty tricksters, into key positions on her staff demonstrates her willingness to allow a political operation to nest down insider her office. In 2009, former San Bernardino County First District Supervisor Bill Postmus, who had risen to the positions of chairman of the board of supervisors and chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee before he successfully ran for county assessor in 2006, imploded in scandal when it was revealed he was utilizing the assessor’s office and its premises, facilities and equipment to promote selected Republican Party candidates and measures. After it was demonstrated that 13 of the employees he had hired into the office had no experience, expertise or training with regard to determining the value of property for the purposes of determining tax values and that they were instead either not showing up for work or were conducting partisan campaign activity at the office, he was charged with and subsequently pleaded guilty to six political corruption felonies relating to his misuse of his authority as assessor. If a law enforcement inquiry or action with regard to partisan political activity taking place in her office were to be undertaken, the buck would stop with the employees engaged in that activity and Rowe. Any criminal charges that might grow out of such an investigation would likely extend no further than Rowe and her office. In this way Rowe appears prepared to run whatever risk is needed to keep the Cook political machine in place and protect the other politicians involved, as it is unlikely that the other officeholders/candidates benefiting from such assistance would be held legally accountable. This week, when Rowe was directly asked by the Sentinel if she realized that her employment of Knox and Lesovsky as county workers while they were engaged in political activity was improper and unlawful, she did not respond to the question.
Paule, who is Rutherford’s chief of staff, 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. He has an interest in being able to wield the services of Knox and Lesovsky on campaigns and on behalf of candidates of his choosing. In 2012, Paule unsuccessfully 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. At one point, Republican Party strategists were holding out hope that Ramos, who can tap into a considerable wellspring of wealth that has been accumulated by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians generated by its casino operation in Highland, would change his party affiliation to the GOP. That never materialized, and Ramos is now a Democratic member of the California Assembly. Paule remained with Ramos’s supervisorial 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 been 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 in the November 2006 election. He has succeeded in warding off competition ever since and ran unopposed in 2010, 2014 and 2018.
What has been anticipated but which has yet, as of press time, to materialize is Lovingood’s declaration of candidacy in the 33rd Assembly District. His was the most passionate advocacy of Rowe’s appointment to the board of supervisors, and the use of Lesovsky, whom Lovingood formerly employed in his supervisor’s office, and Knox in his future political endeavors has been widely assumed.
In office, Rowe has shown caution in situating everyone so that electioneering in 2020 can take place. Significantly, Knox, who is provided with a total annual compensation package of $206,605 in his position as Rowe’s chief of staff, consisting of a $121,826 per year salary and benefits of $84,779, has assumed a very low profile in the office, with Rowe’s deputy chief of staff, M. Gayle Covey, taking on a much more public role in representing Rowe about the county and in the Third District. This is thought to be because Rowe wants to avoid having Knox visually and otherwise identified as associated with her, given the degree to which he will be intermingling with elements of the San Bernardino County community as a political operative, thus reducing the scrutiny Rowe will be subjected to for allowing her office to be used for partisan political purposes. Lesovsky’s role as a policy advisor calls for little interaction with the public. Rowe’s county website, unlike the websites for the other supervisors, does not feature profiles or photographs of her staff.
Rowe has absolutely refused to publicly address the issue of her efforts to assemble a political electioneering team on her staff. She possesses a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Drake University, but has assiduously avoided contact with news reporters since the initial public reports earlier this year of the hiring of Knox and Lesovsky and the intended employment of them as functionaries in any of several 2020 political campaigns. Rowe declined to speak with the Sentinel this week and did not return an email to her seeking answers to several pointed questions about the political shop being run out of her supervisorial office.
The appointment of Rowe as Third District supervisor was one of the last major undertakings of the board of supervisors while Lovingood was yet chairman of the board. Shortly thereafter, Hagman was chosen by his colleagues to serve as chairman. Undoubtedly, as the chairman of the board, he is in a position to know of what is going on throughout the entirety of the fifth floor of the county administration building, where the five supervisors and the county’s chief executive officer have their offices. Hagman has been identified, as well, as someone who would potentially benefit from the political activity undertaken from Rowe’s office. Hagman did not return phone calls placed to him this week which were intended to elicit from him his knowledge about Knox’s and Lesovsky’s activity so far, his understanding of Rowe’s acquiescence or direct participation in that activity, and his own attitude regarding it.
The Sentinel’s telephonic effort to reach Obernolte was fielded by Ross Sevy, an employee with Obernolte’s Assembly office who is also involved in his campaign effort.
Asked on Wednesday about a collective campaign effort promoting Obernolte, Cook, Lovingood and Rowe in their respective 2020 election campaigns involving the sharing of resources and the contributions of Knox and Lesovsky, Sevy said, “You would have to speak to the assemblyman. I’m not aware of any plans for that at the moment, but I cannot speak for the assemblyman. This happened fairly quickly. We were not aware Paul Cook would decide not to run for reelection to Congress and instead run for the supervisor’s seat. Paul made his announcement on Tuesday and we made an announcement today.”
With regards to reports that the alliance of Republican candidates currently holding the Congressional post, one of the California Assembly positions and occupying the two county supervisorial offices in San Bernardino County’s desert region were actively working out among themselves a way to keep those four elective offices sewn up between them, Sevy said, “I don’t think that’s the case. From the assemblyman’s perspective, he made it clear when he put out a statement to the LA Times in August that should Congressman Cook seek another office, he would intend to carry on the congressman’s work in the 8th District and run for that seat. The decision was Congressman Cook’s to make. From our perspective, it was a matter of waiting to see what Congressman Cook would do.”
While Judge Frangie’s ruling on Wednesday removing Rowe from the Third District supervisorial post had clearly rocked the county’s Republican establishment as well as the county’s senior governmental echelon back on their heels, the following day County Counsel Michelle Blakemore, at the direction of the board majority of Hagman, Rutherford, Lovingood and Rowe, had filed with the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Riverside an appeal of Judge Frangie’s ruling. The filing of that appeal stayed the court’s ruling, leaving Rowe, at least for the time being, in office and Knox and Lesovsky in place as her staff members. With California’s 2020 primary election scheduled for March, in which both the Third District and First District supervisorial posts are to be contested and in which the preliminary polling for the 33rd Assembly District and 8th Congressional District will be held, there is a considerable likelihood that the appellate court will not get to the matter relating to the propriety or lack thereof in Rowe’s appointment until she and Cook have captured election to the board for the term running from 2020 to 2024 and Obernolte and Lovingood have picked up significant momentum to ensure they will occupy positions in nation’s and California’s lower legislative houses at least from December 2020 until December 2022.
By Mark Gutglueck