By Mark Gutglueck
It does not appear that San Bernardino County Chief Operating Officer Leonard Hernandez will carry out a comprehensive investigation into partisan political activity being run out of county facilities by Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe’s staff members or any other personnel working for members of the county board of supervisors.
After more than a year of reports that suggested three of the staff members working for Rowe were gearing up for or were engaged in electioneering activity while functioning out of county government facilities, Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford at the July 28 board of supervisors’ meeting called upon either County Counsel Michelle Blakemore or Hernandez to undertake some form of activity that would provide the public with an assurance that the staff of the county’s highest ranking officials were not using county facilities, equipment or their governmental authority to carry out political activity.
At 4:45:33 into the July 28, 2020 meeting, Supervisor Rutherford said, “I wanted to ask perhaps [County Chief Operating Officer] Leonard [Hernandez] or [County Counsel] Michelle [Blakemore], whoever feels it’s appropriate: We are entering what we refer to lovingly as silly season, that is, the campaign season where there’s lots of campaigning and politicking, and I know we have state law and county policy that we ask our county staff to abide by in terms of not using public resources to do political or campaign work. I wonder if we could just review those and give the public some assurance that we are emphasizing those and communicating those to our staff.”
At that point, a computerized voice from a teleconference line that the county maintains was, in the words of County Spokesman David Wert, “accidentally left open after it had been used,” thereby interrupting the proceedings. “Hello. There doesn’t appear to be any activity in this meeting,” the voice-over stated. Board of Supervisors Chairman Curt Hagman, who was conducting the meeting and had control over the meeting microphones and communication devices, was then heard laughing. “I think that’s the accumulation of a long day,” Hagman said, perhaps in response to the computerized voice interruption, which was either a technical faux pas or an effort to sidetrack the request Rutherford had made. Ultimately, Hagman responded to the substance of what Rutherford had said, simultaneously downplaying any suggestion that there had been any improper political activity involving supervisorial staff.
“Leonard’s here and he’ll make sure that gets out,” said Hagman, directing, in his capacity as board chairman, that the action Rutherford had requested be carried out by Hernandez as opposed to Blakemore. “He doesn’t have much to report.”
At least some members of the public observing the proceedings, which were video-recorded and streamed simultaneously and mounted on the county’s website, took what was said by Supervisor Rutherford to be a call for Hernandez or Blakemore to look into the issues pertaining to campaigns being run out of county facilities by county personnel, and investigate whether there is any substance to recurrent reports to that effect.
In 2018, then-Third District Supervisor James Ramos, a Democrat, ran successfully for the California Assembly in the 40th Assembly District. To move into that state office, he was obligated to resign his county position, with two years yet remaining on his term as supervisor, as he had most recently been reelected to that position in 2016. In December 2018, the remaining members of the board of supervisors – Republicans Janice Rutherford, Robert Lovingood and Curt Hagman and Democrat Josie Gonzales – chose Dawn Rowe, a former Yucca Valley town councilwoman, to succeed Ramos, despite Ramos’s wish that his replacement be a Democrat. Rowe is a Republican, and at the time of her appointment she was a staff member with Congressman Paul Cook, a Republican. Upon assuming office, Rowe hired Matt Knox, who was also one of Cook’s Congressional staffers, as her chief of staff, and Dillon Lesovsky, who formerly worked in Cook’s office, as her policy advisor. Both Knox and Lesovsky were Republican Party political operatives who were actively involved in the campaigns of Republican candidates for elected office. In particular, Knox and Lesovsky had an established record as “political hitmen,” who were responsible for attack ads, mailers, presentations, activities and websites which pointedly criticized, berated or characterized in a negative light the opponents of the candidates they were working on behalf of. These tactics were almost always vicious and had proven generally effective. One of Knox’s and Lesovsky’s signature attacks had been that on Tim Donnelly, another Republican whose challenge of Cook in 2018 had been so effective he found himself in the November 2018 runoff against Cook, a rare circumstance, since generally same-party candidates face each other only in a primary election rather than in a general election. Knox’s and Lesovsky’s tactics worked, and the incumbent held off the surging Donnelly, celebrated widely as the most conservative of California’s politicians when he previously served in the Assembly and ran unsuccessfully for governor, retaining for Cook his position as congressman.
In January 2019, Rowe fleshed out her supervisorial staff, hiring both Knox and Lesovsky into the chief of staff and policy advisor positions, respectively, and also taking on Suzette Swallow as her communications director. Swallow was a loan from Rutherford’s staff. Swallow had been active in Rutherford’s 2018 reelection campaign.
The hiring of three political operatives as Rowe’s staff members raised immediate red flags, such that before February 2019 began there was suspicion that a political operation was being run out of the fifth floor of the San Bernardino County administration building at 385 North Arrowhead Avenue in downtown San Bernardino, where the county supervisors have their county seat offices and where the offices of the county chief executive officer and his staff are also housed.
Almost immediately upon coming into office, a good portion of Rowe’s focus turned to ensuring that she would remain in office beyond the final two years of Ramos’s term, which in practical terms meant she and her political team needed to work toward winning the 2020 Third District supervisor’s race. Word soon came that Knox, Lesovsky and Swallow were engaged in assuring their boss’s political longevity, and that they were to lesser degrees lending support to the then-anticipated upcoming campaigns of Rowe’s allies, Republicans all, including Cook in his congressional effort; Jay Obernolte in his reelection campaign for the 33rd Assembly District in 2020; Robert Lovingood, then due to stand for reelection this year as First District county supervisor; and that they were scouting the horizon for a viable Republican candidate to seek the supervisor’s post in the Fifth District, where Josie Gonzales, the only Democrat on the board of supervisors, is to be termed out this year.
In August 2019, Supervisor Lovingood announced he would not seek reelection as supervisor, which immediately touched off a round of political musical chairs. Congressman Cook, who had previously served in the Assembly, abruptly announced that he would descend at least two rungs on the political evolutionary ladder by vying to succeed Lovingood as supervisor, an otherwise extraordinary move but for the consideration that at the age of 76, he was finding the constant transcontinental flights between California and Washington, D.C. to be wearying. That created a vacuum that Obernolte moved at once to fill, and he announced he would not seek to return to Sacramento as the 33rd District assemblyman but would instead seek to replace Cook as California’s 8th District congressman. For a brief interim, there was speculation that Lovingood would then step up to run for Obernolte’s Assembly seat. When Lovingood made clear that he was getting out of the political game entirely, the Republican clique in the High Desert put forth Thurston Smith, the one-time mayor of Hesperia, as the logical heir in the 33rd Assembly District, where the GOP holds a strong registration advantage over the Democrats.
Recurrent reports were that the political machine in Rowe’s office – Knox, Lesovsky and Swallow – were awork to maintain Republican primacy in San Bernardino County. And indeed, in the March 3, 2020 California Primary, all four of the Republican candidates the trio were said to be associated with prevailed. Rowe, challenged by four others, captured 54.96 percent of the vote to win outright in the Third District, and Cook, facing three opponents, triumphed with 64.66 percent of the vote in the county’s First District. Both avoided having to participate in a run-off election in the upcoming November general election, and will now serve on the board of supervisors at least until 2024. Obernolte comfortably captured first place with 35.71 percent of the vote against eight other candidates in the 8th Congressional District race, and Smith polled 37.9 percent of the vote for first place among seven candidates seeking the 33rd Assembly District berth. Smith outdistanced his closest competitor by more than 20 percent and Obernolte, whose opponents included four Republicans who together claimed more than 25 percent of the vote, bettered the second place finisher, a Democrat, by 7.93 percent. Both Smith and Obernolte are heavily favored in the upcoming November general election.
Thus, Rutherford’s request on July 28 was seen as a move that might force into the open the political activity ongoing in Rowe’s office, leaving open the possibility that Hernandez, depending upon how aggressively he pursued that request, might churn up documentation or irrefutable proof of the illegal activity that has been rumored to be taking place at the highest level in San Bernardino County government.
On August 6, 2020, the Sentinel emailed Hernandez, inquiring to confirm that he perceived the request by Supervisor Rutherford to be one calling for him to investigate the allegations of political activity ongoing in Supervisor Rowe’s office and whether, in the nine days since he had been tasked with the assignment, he had been able to document the activities involving Knox, Lesovsky and Swallow and thoroughly account for the time they had spent since November in their function as county employees. The Sentinel further inquired of Hernandez as to whether he had carried out a forensic analysis of the computers at Knox’s, Lesovsky’s and Swallow’s workstations, and whether he was able to document their involvement in political activity while they were simultaneously functioning in their official capacities as county employees, what that political activity consisted of and if he had ascertained which political candidates they were working on behalf of.
The Sentinel also endeavored to determine from Hernandez if he was able to determine if the political activity Knox, Lesovsky and Swallow were engaged in was being coordinated with, through or at the behest of Supervisor Rowe, and if he had come across any communications between Supervisor Rowe and her employees with regard to that political activity.
Hernandez did not respond to the Sentinel’s inquiry.
Rather, the Sentinel has learned, Hernandez – either of his own volition, at the direction of his political masters or possibly County Chief Executive Officer Gary McBride – elected to stand down in the assignment to look into political activity emanating out of the supervisors’ offices.
A multitude of factors appear to have gone into the decision to short-circuit the investigation.
Hernandez has a reputation for being both hypervigilant and super-efficient in his function, which has resulted in his rapid rise from that of county librarian in 2016 to the vaunted position of the county’s chief operating officer. Moreover, as a consequence of his position, Hernandez has access to assets, facilities, personnel, information and data that absolutely outruns that available to those outside the confines of government and which generally exceeds that available to nearly all of those functioning within the county governmental structure, with the possible exceptions of McBride as the county’s chief executive officer and Blakemore, as county counsel. Moreover, as the county’s chief operating officer, Hernandez’s access to a substantial amount of that information is more direct than that of anyone, McBride, Blakemore and the supervisors themselves included. Were Hernandez to carry out the full-dimensional investigation his position, his authority and the assets at his command make possible, he would be able to get to the bottom of the political activity that is going on within Supervisor Rowe’s office in which Lesovsky, Knox, Swallow and any others are or were involved.
The use of public facilities, equipment and personnel for partisan political activity is illegal.
Hernandez and McBride either collectively and or independently came to the conclusion that creating an evidence file establishing or otherwise documenting that a member or members of the board of supervisors was or were in violation of the law was inadvisable for a multitude of reasons. Hernandez and McBride also recognized that any documentation of the misdeeds in Rowe’s supervisorial office would potentially either indirectly or indirectly implicate Supervisor-elect Cook, as his campaign was a beneficiary of some of that political activity, and shedding discredit on two or more of the members of the board of supervisors might have unfavorable consequences for both Hernandez and McBride once Cook takes up his position as supervisor later this year.
Another issue persuaded Hernandez to eighty-six the investigation.
Ironically, it turns out, Rutherford’s staff has been implicated in ongoing political activity. Swallow, after serving as Rowe’s communications director, has now returned to Rutherford’s office, according to the county’s official spokesperson, David Wert. Additionally, Phil Paule, Rutherford’s chief of staff, has been moonlighting as a political operative.
The Sentinel has obtained documentation showing that Rowe’s supervisorial campaign made a $16,500 payment to Knox, her chief of staff, for services he rendered to his boss’s 2020 electioneering effort.
Rowe’s campaign also made a payment of $7,000 to Lesovsky as remuneration for his role as a consultant to her campaign for election on March 3 of this year, documentation in the possession of the Sentinel shows.
The Paul Cook for Supervisor campaign paid Lesovsky $2,700, another document obtained by the Sentinel establishes. That document states, without any clarification, that Lesovsy was paid that sum for rent on an office.
Additionally, the Sentinel has learned from campaign disclosure documents filed with the federal government, Paule, while simultaneously employed in the capacity of Rutherford’s chief of staff, has been working on behalf of Obernolte’s congressional campaign. The Obernolte for Congress campaign paid Paule’s company, Paule Consulting, $10,000 for his assistance in this year’s campaign.
Furthermore, information, documentation and other evidence available to the Sentinel show that Paule, along with Rutherford’s Assistant Chief of Staff Mark Taylor, Swallow and one of Rutherford’s district representatives, Ben Lopez, were actively involved in Rutherford’s 2018 reelection campaign.
Swallow served in the capacity of Rutherford’s campaign manager and as her scheduler. Finance documentation for Rutherford’s 2018 reelection campaign obtained by the Sentinel shows that Swallow received $24,262.35 in payments and reimbursements for her work, which included serving as a campaign consultant.
Mark Taylor was not paid directly by the Rutherford campaign for the work he did on behalf of the effort to reelect Rutherford in 2018. Rather, his wife, Mondi Taylor, was paid $10,948.49 by the Rutherford campaign in 2018, primarily for “professional services.”
Campaign documentation shows Lopez was paid $2,878.31 by the Rutherford campaign, $2,750 of which was for consulting work. Documentation relating to the reimbursements Lopez received from the Rutherford campaign establish that he was engaged in campaign-related activity during normal business hours when he was supposed to be functioning in his role as a county employee.
No payments were made directly to Paule or his consulting company from Rutherford’s 2018 electioneering fund. Nevertheless, in 2018 during the campaign, Paule was repeatedly present at Rutherford’s campaign headquarters during normal weekday business hours. Similarly, Lopez, Swallow and Taylor were witnessed at Rutherford’s Rancho Cucamonga campaign office during the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday window on several days during the Spring 2018 campaign season, hours when, as county employees, they were required to be at their county work stations.
Additionally, Meridian Pacific, Inc., which provided the Rutherford campaign with digital advertising, campaign literature and mailings and communication services for which it was paid $279,798.31, utilized Rutherford’s staff employees as subcontractors for work it was carrying out related to the Rutherford campaign, documents show.
Upon Rutherford learning that her July 28 remarks were being interpreted as a call for Hernandez to undertake an investigation into the electioneering activity of the county’s supervisors’ staff members, including her own, she made clear that was not her intent, according to David Wert, the county’s public information officer.
Last week, on August 6, Wert told the Sentinel that Rutherford “clearly did not ask for anything akin to an investigation and she clearly made no reference to a specific circumstance. She asked for a ‘review’ of state law and county policy that we ask county staff to abide by in terms of not using public resources to do political or campaign work, and to ‘assure’ the public that we emphasize and communicate those state laws and county policies to county staff. In brief, she asked for a review of laws and policy, and an assurance to the public that those laws and policies are communicated to county employees. Even more briefly, she was asking for the county to tell the public that county employees are informed that they cannot use public resources for political purposes. I cannot see how anyone could interpret that to mean she asked for an investigation of a particular incident or incidents. I asked her about this this morning, and she confirmed she did not ask for an investigation, nor did she reference any specific circumstance.”
Wert continued, “Why was Leonard asked to handle it? Probably because Leonard oversees me, and it would be my job to make the communication requested by Supervisor Rutherford to the public. If an investigation into what you have described had been requested, neither Leonard nor Michelle would have been asked to handle it. It would have been referred to the district attorney.”
Wert asked “[W]hy would Supervisor Rutherford ask for an investigation? [N]o one has made any allegation to the county, or anyone else as far as the county knows, about anything you referenced in your email [to Hernandez].”
Wert asserted that the “only place those suggestions have appeared are in stories” which previously appeared in the Sentinel “with no attribution or sourcing.” Wert dismissed the Sentinel’s reference to “numerous” reports relating to Rowe’s staff being involved in political campaigns as falling in the class of unsupported assertions. “Are they ‘numerous?’ he asked. “Where else have they appeared besides your unattributed stories? Who has made those allegations?”
Wert made no reference to the campaign finance documentation filed by Rowe’s campaign treasurer, Bryan Burch and her assistant treasurer, Rebecca Luby, which disclosed her 2020 campaign’s payments to Knox and Lesovsky. Nor did Wert mention the campaign finance documentation filed by the treasurer of Cook’s 2020 campaign, Phil Waller, which identified the Cook campaign’s payment to Lesovsky, or the campaign finance documentation filed by Mondi Taylor, the treasurer for Rutherford’s 2018 reelection campaign, which identified the payments to Mark Taylor, Swallow and Lopez, nor the federal political campaign disclosure documents identifying Paule as a recipient of money from Obernolte’s campaign.
On August 8, Wert told the Sentinel, “I just learned Dillon Lesovsky hasn’t worked for Supervisor Rowe or any other county-affiliated entity for quite some time.” Wert did not give a precise date for the termination of Lesovsky’s employment with Rowe’s office.
Lesovsky was initially hired to serve as Rowe’s policy advisor in January 2019, effective January 22, 2019, through August 2, 2019. On August 20, 2019, the board of supervisors approved an employment contract with Lesovsky to provide support services to the Third District Supervisor as a policy advisor, effective August 17, 2019, with no termination date specified.
Lesovsky has a reputation for being indiscreet. In 2015, the Project Veritas organization, carrying out an investigation into pay-for-play politics, caught Lesovsky, then working as a staffer for Congressman Cook, 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/
That circumstance led to Cook seeking to distance himself from Lesovsky, who sometime thereafter departed as a member of Cook’s staff. Lesovsky was able to land on his feet, however, when it was arranged for him to go to work for Supervisor Robert Lovingood as a member of his staff. One member of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee characterized Lesovsky as a “blabbermouth” who constantly brags about the campaign work he is involved in. Indeed, elements of the Sentinel’s previous reporting with regard to the political activity ongoing in Rowe’s office stemmed either directly or indirectly from Lesovsky’s unguarded statements.
Wert was insistent that there is no inquiry into political activity involving the staff of the members of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, nor grounds for one.
“Supervisor Rutherford clearly did not ask anyone to look into anything,” Wert told the Sentinel. “County staff did not interpret her comments to mean that, no one is looking into anything, and that’s primarily because no one has made any allegations of the type you’ve described. You’ve repeatedly reported that allegations exist, but you’ve never reported that anyone has made the allegations. Even if allegations of the type to which you have alluded were to be made, they would not be made to the county, and the county would have no standing to look into them. They would be made to law enforcement. [I]f someone were to ask for an investigation into something of that nature, neither the chief operating officer nor county counsel would conduct the investigation. It would be a law enforcement agency conducting the ‘analysis of activity on their workplace computers’ or anything else germane to such an investigation.”
By Mark Gutglueck