By Mark Gutglueck
In a move which has consolidated a considerable portion of the power of county government into the hands of a single domineering political personage, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors last week broke with 50 years of tradition and established protocol, selecting Supervisor Curt Hagman, who has just finished a two-year term as board chairman, to a second two-year term as that panel’s leader.
The official rationale given for extending what has become Hagman’s vice-grip on the reins of local/regional government was to maintain continuity of leadership in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, so to ensure ongoing coordination of response to the crisis. Still, because the county’s performance in meeting the test of the coronavirus contagion has proven less than sterling, attributing the need to keep him in place to continue that effort suggests the willingness of Hagman’s board colleagues to perpetuate his hold on the scepter of county command in actuality grew out of his having prevailed in a power struggle by which he succeeded in ruthlessly vanquishing his rivals or otherwise convinced his coadjutors that their acceptance of an alliance in which he holds primacy is in their own political interest.
Whatever the true reason, the action elevates Hagman to a position of political prominence that rivals or surpasses that of any member of the board of supervisors in San Bernardino County history.
The role of board chairman, while considered by casual observers to be an honorific with little practical enhancement of the power a supervisor already possesses, actually carries with it authority that extends the gavel holder’s reach from that of one of the county’s five legislators to that of a top echelon administrator with a governmental structure with a $5 billion annual budget, who, if he chooses to exercise the power entrusted to him, can be a co-regent of the county together with the county chief executive officer. Presiding over the board of supervisors meetings, from which position the ebb and flow of debate and discussion of the panel is controlled, comes across as the most visible duty of the chairman or chairwoman. Yet, the board chairman also works more closely with the county executive leadership than any of the other supervisors. Thus, the supervisors’ chair has continuous contact with the county chief executive officer, and direct contact with the several assistant and deputy county chief executive officers, the county chief operating officer and the county’s various department heads. The board chairman sets the board’s agenda, controlling in large measure what action will be considered, and the chairman’s authority extends to being the board’s and thereby the county’s executive agent, as well as its official outside representative to other agencies and corporations the county deals with.
Since the codification of the policy pertaining to its internal authority and hierarchy in 1970, the board of supervisors has followed a practice of rotating the chair position to one of its members who has served a minimum of two years who has not yet served as chairperson. The board has consistently for half a century adhered to the other tenet of the policy which prevents a chairperson from serving two terms in succession.
In this way, when the board met on January 5, the logical appointment to head the county’s ultimate decision-making panel over the next two years was Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe, who has been on the board since December 2018. Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford, who has been on the board since 2010, previously served as chairwoman. Hagman has been on the board since 2014, and has been board chairman for the last two years. First District Supervisor Paul Cook was elected last year, as was Fifth District Supervisor Joe Baca, Jr.
It was thus widely assumed that Rowe was to be designated chairwoman. There were two issues on the board’s discussion calendar relating to the chair appointment, which were placed well down on the agenda as items number 54 and 55. Item 54 called for “waiv[ing] County Policy 02-02 … and direct[ing] the clerk of the board to conduct the election for chair of the board of supervisors without the requirements included in the policy. Item 54 was to be presented by Rowe. Item 55 was the election of both the board chair and board vice chair.
What followed had all the hallmarks of a choreographed set-up and a violation of the Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law.
Rowe said, “Policy 02-02 states that the office of the chairperson is to rotate every two years, and that no chairperson shall serve two terms in succession, and I would propose we suspend that policy. First and foremost, I think our chairman has done an exemplary job during [the] COVID [crisis]. The other consideration is the policy states the next chairperson is determined on the seniority of the members who have served on the board for a minimum of two years and have not yet served as chairperson. So, according to that scenario, I would be the most likely chairperson next on the board, and I look forward to that honor someday, and I would look forward to leading the county and this board. I have not even had the opportunity to serve as a vice chair, and I would enjoy some more time and rank, if the board chooses to go that direction. I think primarily, during a pandemic is not the time to change leadership. I think Supervisor Cook will understand battle rhythm and op tempo, and we have had a significant op tempo increase during COVID. Chairman Hagman and I have had opportunities to meet with our outside foreign partners, and what he has been able to negotiate in terms of PPE [personal protective equipment] and getting it in, and having the status as the chairman of the county has enabled him in part to be able to have those negotiations be successful. I have had the opportunity to see him implement our COVID Compliant Business Partnership Program. Tremendous leadership all the way around to our skilled nursing task force! So, Mr. Chairman, I commend you on your continued leadership, and it would be, I think, in the best interests of the citizens of San Bernardino County and our board if you were given another opportunity to serve, to continue your leadership during this pandemic. So, I would ask the board for comments and consideration to suspend the board policy.”
A giveaway that a violation of the Brown Act had occurred ensued with comments from Supervisor Paul Cook, whose comments clearly reflected that he was not taken by surprise over Rowe’s proposal.
The Brown Act is California’s open public meeting law, which prohibits a quorum of a governing board from coming to a decision or forming a consensus with regard to a matter to be voted upon in any way, manner or in a forum outside that of a scheduled and agendized public meeting. The Brown Act prohibits the holding of serial meetings in which one governing board member meets with another in private and the two resolve on taking action or coordinating a vote, followed by one of those meeting in private with another member of the same panel where further coordination of a vote takes place. Cook’s remarks strongly indicated he had come to a conclusion with regard to keeping Hagman as chairman prior to the meeting.
In what sounded to be a prepared response, Cook said, “I’m obviously new here, but I’ve been seeing a lot of changes in leadership in a lot of different areas, obviously the military, Congress, local government, and the one thing you have to be very, very careful of when you are in the middle of a crisis, and you have a leader who is handling the situation and everything is well in hand reacting to everything that is happening on a daily basis, you don’t want to change leadership unless you have a very good reason. Unfortunately, normally it’s illness or, heaven forbid, death. So, I strongly support continuing the leadership of the current chair for a short time.”
At that point, Cook, a Marine veteran who had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, the one-time mayor of Yucca Valley, a member of the California Assembly and then the U.S. Congress, credited Hagman with being a member of Congress. “All the years in Congress, his leadership and everything else, his leadership has been exemplary,” Cook said of Hagman.
In fact, Hagman was not a member of Congress but had served in the California Assembly for six years.
Cook indicated he too wanted to keep Hagman in place.
Supervisor Baca said he supported suspending Policy 02-02, and the motion to do so passed unanimously.
Immediately thereafter, Hagman, as the chairman, pushed forward to the next agenda item, 55, election of the chair and vice-chair of the board. Once again, what looked to be a set-up ensued. Immediately upon Hagman introducing the item, Rowe and Rutherford preempted Clerk of the Board Lynna Monnell, who was unable to read the title of the issue to be voted on before Rowe nominated Hagman as chairman and Rutherford pressed to have that confirmed.
“Mr. Chair, I would like to nominate you to remain as chairman of the next duration,” uttered Rowe.
“Second,” Rutherford exclaimed. There was no discussion, but Monnell at that point asserted herself, insisting on complying with parliamentary protocol by reading through the order of proceedings, risking the ire of her political masters, who have already sued her on another issue, by doing so.
Thereafter, Rowe and Rutherford reiterated their nomination and second. Rutherford then nominated Rowe to serve as vice-chair. Monnell took separate votes on both nominations, each of which passed unanimously.
Public comments were not accepted until after the nominations were voted upon. No members of the public remarked upon Hagman’s retention as chairman.
Multiple questions attended the board’s action in retaining Hagman as board chairman.
No explanation was provided as to where the board derived the power to waive or suspend the rules governing itself.
Ostensibly, based on the statements made publicly by the members of the board of supervisors, the renomination of Hagman as chairman grew organically out of his board colleagues’ desire to have him remain installed in that capacity. There were indications, however, that the decision was not one spontaneously made among the supervisors during the January 5 meeting, and that the retention of Hagman was a carefully and artfully choreographed move to broaden his power. There are indications the move, indeed, originated with Hagman himself.
Hagman has generally made an effort to cultivate an image of calm collection and unhurried patience with the public decision-making process, and convey to his constituents that he is a team member who works through collective agreement. Despite his practice of maintaining his equanimity in public settings and avoiding any obvious showing of disconcertion, when the official action of the board runs counter to what Hagman’s intentions are, he will assert himself, usually in measured degrees, first mildly and then more firmly in an effort to move events in the direction he prefers. Those close to the situation of governance in the county seat and indeed Hagman himself acknowledge that he is an alpha type whose first and overriding aim is political dominance. Where possible, Hagman attempts to achieve a consensus of sorts, and he has done this by creative political horse-trading in the backroom in situations where he encounters others at the power brokerage table who have priorities that do not align with or coincide with his own. Simultaneously, however, he is constantly working toward establishing a coalition with his counterparts on the board, driving to get them to align with him while ultimately recognizing him as the top dog. Thus, Hagman militates to maintain control constantly.
An illustration of Hagman’s primacy unto himself is the circumstance by which he came onto the board of supervisors in 2014. At that point, Hagman had served six years – three two-year terms – in the California Assembly, representing the 60th District from 2008 to 2012 and then the 55th Assembly District for two years after the 2012 redistricting that took place following the 2010 Census. Under the term limit rules then in place, Hagman was precluded from seeking reelection to the Assembly and he could not run that year for the California Senate without changing his residence or challenging another incumbent Republican. Thus, he resolved to prolong his political career not by remaining in Sacramento or returning to the Chino Hills City Council where had he previously been a councilman and mayor, but by running for the board of supervisors. The Fourth District supervisor’s position at that time was held by Gary Ovitt, a fellow Republican. This presented Hagman with a certain dilemma, as it seemed to go without saying that Ovitt, who would not be termed out of his position as supervisor until 2022, was purposed to seek reelection in 2014. It so happened that Gloria Negrete-McLeod, a Democrat who was at that point a first term member of Congress and former California state senator and assemblywoman, was anxious to depart from Congress and was intent on running for Fourth District supervisor against Ovitt, hoping that voter registration numbers that were trending in favor of the Democrats in the Fourth Supervisorial District might aid her in her electoral quest.
Adroitly, Hagman in late 2013 made an effort to depose then-San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee Chairman Robert Rego, under whom the Party of Lincoln in San Bernardino County had built a highly efficient political machine. Marshaling all of his power and advantage as an incumbent state office holder, including his alliance with former Republican legislative leader Jim Brulte who was then vying to become the head of the California Republican Party, Hagman engineered a bloodless coup against Rego in San Bernardino County, getting his agreement to step down as county party chairman in return for Hagman keeping him in an important functionary role within the party. Having thus captured control of San Bernardino County’s Republican Party apparatus including its accrued funds, fundraising capability and campaign machinery, Hagman subtly put the squeeze on Ovitt, ultimately convincing him that discretion would prove the better part of valor by his choosing not to run for reelection in 2014 in a circumstance in which he would be facing, on one side, Negrete-McLeod and the growing number of Democratic voters in the Fourth District, and Hagman on the other side, with his control of the Republican Party’s electioneering machinery, existing funding and donors putting up money in the future. Aided by his chief of staff in his Assembly Office, Mike Spence, who was also the West Covina mayor, Hagman ran an energetic, resourceful and sophisticated campaign that relied on driving large numbers of Republicans to the polls. In this way, he proved successful against Negrete-McLeod, whose skill in running a campaign was nowhere as refined as Hagman’s and Spence’s. In that year’s June primary which featured four candidates, Hagman finished a close second behind Negrete-McLeod, thereby qualifying for the November 2014 run-off. At that point, Hagman and Spence brought all of their electioneering acumen to bear against Negrete-McLeod, such that the incumbent Assemblyman Hagman eked out a 24,480 votes or 52.11 percent to 22,502 votes or 47.89 percent victory over the incumbent Congresswoman Negrete-McLeod.
Hagman’s unerring political instincts have been constantly on display. Rarely does he lose in a political fight, and when he does, it comes across as a calculated loss, usually on an issue or matter that is less than crucial, one which he can afford to lose to appease his rivals and diminish their appetite for victory in the next and more important battle. While he is no longer the titular head of the Republican Party in San Bernardino County, having allowed the title of chair of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee to be claimed by Jan Leja, Hagman remains the de facto head of the GOP in San Bernardino County.
As Hagman goes in San Bernardino County, so go the Republicans. In 2018, when he had to stand for reelection, he was again faced by Negrete-McLeod, who was the second time around a little bit wiser as well as the beneficiary of the continuing movement of the Fourth Supervisorial District’s voter registration numbers in favor of the Democrats. Nevertheless, in a toe-to-toe slugfest in which they were the only candidates in the June Primary, Hagman again outhustled Negrete-McLeod by an even greater margin than not quite four years before, 25,468 votes or 53.41 percent to 22,213 votes of 46.59 percent. Thus Hagman in 2018 won the Fourth District supervisorial election outright, avoiding a November run-off.
The prior year, Hagman had surprised everyone when he hired Ontario City Councilman Alan Wapner as his policy advisor. Those in the know understood that there were definite differences between the two men, both of whom are alpha type personalities who dominate, or at least attempt to dominate, everyone and everything in their respective orbits. The move to hire Wapner was for many baffling, because it seemed to strengthen Wapner, who was perceived in some circles, at least, as a potential rival to Hagman, someone who might challenge him for the Fourth District supervisorial post. Giving Wapner the title of policy advisor or policy director was seen as risky, since the ambitious Wapner, who has well over $250,000 in his electioneering fund that has been accrued over his more than 20 years in office in Ontario, was and is capable of turning on a dime, perhaps challenging Hagman for the Fourth District supervisor post. Hagman appeared to be giving Wapner the opportunity to say that he had the practical experience to move into the supervisor’s post, based on his having served as the architect of Hagman’s policy as supervisor. If Wapner indeed sought to run against his employer, Hagman would be hard-pressed to deny Wapner’s suitability for the office of supervisor, given that Hagman held him in enough esteem to rely upon his advice. Hagman’s hiring of Wapner therefore struck many political observers as foolhardy. Still, Hagman appears to have known exactly what he was doing, which was to buy Wapner’s loyalty during the 2018 political season. Ultimately, while working for Hagman in the policy director’s post, Wapner chose not to run for supervisor, leaving Hagman free to battle one-on-one with Negrete-McLeod and vanquish her. Some sixth months after the June 2018 election where Hagman was retained by the Fourth District’s voters as supervisor, Hagman moved to quietly terminate Wapner as his policy advisor.
Another testimony to Hagman’s political skill is the abiding primacy of the Republican Party in San Bernardino County. Throughout the Golden State, the GOP is in eclipse and the Democrats are in an overwhelmingly superior position. Democrats occupy the governorship, the lieutenant governorship, the office of state attorney general, insurance commissioner, secretary of state, secretary of public instruction and state controller. The Democrats have super-majorities in both the Assembly and California Senate. Both of the state’s U.S. senators are Democrats. Of the state’s 53 members of Congress, 42 are Democrats. In San Bernardino County at present, voter registration solidly favors the Democrats overall, with 458,668 or 40.8 percent of the county’s 1,124,754 registered voters as of this week affiliated with the Democratic Party and 334,813 or 29.8 percent registered as Republicans. Of the county’s five supervisorial districts, all but the First District have more registered Democratic voters than registered Republican voters. The Republican voter registration advantage in the First District is by no means overwhelming: 78,444 voters or 35.6 percent identify as Republican while 76,050 voters or 34.5 percent call themselves Democrats. Despite what should be a major foothold for the Democrats in the county, four of the county’s five supervisors – Hagman, Rutherford, Rowe and Cook – are Republicans. Only Joe Baca, Jr., representing the Fifth District, is a Democrat. In the Fifth District, the Democratic registration advantage is overwhelming, as 100,971 or 50.4 percent of the district’s 200,442 voters are Democrats and 37,878 voters or 18.9 percent are Republicans.
Throughout San Bernardino County, Republican turnout at the polls percentagewise is far higher than the percentage of Democratic voter turnout. The San Bernardino County Republican Party’s electioneering machinery – consisting of the production of mailers, handbills, advertisements, media and signs promoting Republican candidates and issues – is far more energetic, coordinated and effective than the electioneering assets controlled by the Democratic Party in San Bernardino County. While the Republicans’ political hold on San Bernardino County is not wholly or in the main attributable to Hagman and Hagman alone, his position of party leadership over the years and his own ambition, which often runs in parallel with the efforts to benefit his allies so he can achieve his goals in office, has benefited the party.
In 2018, Democratic representation on the board of supervisors had crept up to 40 percent of the board, as then-Fifth District Supervisor Josie Gonzales, a Democrat, had been a member of the board since 2004 and James Ramos, an independently wealthy Democrat, had used his own money to fuel a campaign through which he captured a position on the board of supervisors representing the Third District in 2012, gaining reelection in 2016. In 2018, Ramos had successfully vied for election to the California Assembly, necessitating his resignation from the board of supervisors. At that point, the task of selecting Ramos’s replacement on the board fell to the four remaining supervisors. Though in making his departure Ramos had made clear that he wanted his former board colleagues to appoint a Democrat to replace him, three of the board’s members at that time were Republicans whose loyalty to their party outran whatever allegiance they may have felt toward Ramos or his wishes. When 48 hopefuls living in the Third District, many of them Democrats, applied for the chance to replace Ramos, the board in one fell swoop eliminated 35 of those, leaving 13 candidates at whom they intended to take a closer look. Only one of those 13 was a Democrat. Penultimately, the board reduced those 13 to five Republicans and then ultimately selected Rowe to take Ramos’s place. While Rutherford and then-First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood were sold on Rowe from the outset of the selection process that had to be completed within 30 days of Ramos’s departure to prevent the appointment falling into the hands of the state’s Democratic governor, Hagman hung back without showing partiality to any one candidate in particular, exploring the possibilities that existed with several of the other Republicans who were seeking the post, considering which might make the best fit for the alliance of politicians he is constantly looking to install into positions of governmental authority, thinking in terms of how others in office will advance him and his priorities. In the end, of course, Hagman came around to support Rowe, in so doing impressing upon her that it was his support of her that raised her into the supervisor’s position, in essence conferring upon her an elected office she did not need to actually run for and which paid her $176,236.56 in annual salary, another $18,040.10 in add-on pay and $48,664.60 in benefits for a total annual compensation of $242,941.27. Rowe’s appointment provided her with the advantage of incumbency, which assisted her in fundraising and ultimately assisted in her being able to win a four-year term as Third District supervisor in her own right in the election held in March 2020. This has made Rowe both politically and personally/financially beholden to Hagman, as evidenced by her willingness to forego being installed as chairwoman of the board of supervisors last week in order for Hagman to remain in the chairman’s post for another two years. In this way, Hagman will be board chairman in 2022, when he will need to run for reelection to remain as Fourth District supervisor. If indeed Hagman chooses to seek reelection in 2022, holding the position of board chairman presents a tremendous advantage in terms of numerous elements of running a campaign, including fundraising, as the chairman’s power gives him administrative reach that extends to, if not outright controlling, then influencing how and with whom the county contracts for the provision of goods and services.
No sooner did Rowe get oriented into office in January 2019 than she utilized the position of trust and governmental authority that had been vested in her to convert her governmental-derived power into political reach. Prior to her elevation to supervisor, Rowe had worked on Cook’s Congressional staff when he was a member of the House of Representatives. As supervisor, Rowe hired Matt Knox, who had worked with her as a member of Cook’s staff, as her chief-of-staff, and Dillon Lesovsky, who formerly was employed as a member of Cook’s congressional staff, as her policy advisor. Rowe also hired Suzette Swallow, who had previously worked for Rutherford, to serve as her director of communications. In addition to their governmental staff work, Knox, Lesovsky and Swallow had all served as political operatives for Republican candidates during previous elections. Once on board with Rowe’s office, they formed the core of a political operation that was dedicated to the election of Republican candidates in the 2020 election, including Rowe for supervisor and campaigns on behalf of Cook and Jay Obernolte, at that time an Assemblyman. In August of 2019, when Robert Lovingood announced his decision not to seek reelection as First District supervisor, Cook in short order announced he would not vie for reelection to Congress and would instead run for supervisor. Obernolte at once declared his intention to leave the California Legislature and seek the congressional seat that Cook was vacating.
The political operation in Rowe’s office went into overdrive. In the election corresponding to the March 2020 California Primary, both Rowe and Cook were handily elected as Third and First District supervisors respectively, bypassing the need for them to compete in a runoff in November 2020, as they both captured well over fifty percent of the vote. Ultimately, Obernolte in November 2020 won election to Congress in California’s 8th Congressional District, and he has now replaced Cook in Washington, D.C. Former Hesperia Mayor Thurston “Smitty” Smith, affiliated with the Republican coalition that numbers Cook, Rowe and Obernolte among its members, was elected in the same election to replace Obernolte as Assemblyman in the 33rd Assembly District.
In the aftermath of the March 2020 Primary Election, word of the political activity ongoing in Rowe’s supervisorial office was being bruited about the county. With Rowe’s and Cook’s election to office safely behind them, Knox and Lesovsky were redoubling their electioneering activity in preparation for the campaigns relating to the November 2020 election, in particular those for Obernolte, Smith and other Republican candidates such as Hesperia Mayor Larry Bird.
At the July 28, 2020 board of supervisors meeting, Supervisor Rutherford said, “I wanted to ask perhaps [then-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.”
To at least some members of the public observing the proceedings, which were video-recorded and streamed simultaneously and mounted on the county’s website, Supervisor Rutherford’s remarks appeared 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 was any substance to recurrent reports to that effect.
Rutherford’s request immediately enlivened Hagman, who in his capacity as board chairman reacted by triggering a computerized voice-over from a teleconference line to interrupt what Supervisor Rutherford was saying in an apparent 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. Hagman then made a coded direction to Hernandez that he should not dig too deeply into the political activity ongoing in Rowe’s office. “He doesn’t have much to report,” Hagman said in a shot over both Rutherford’s and Hernandez’s bows.
In October 2020, the board of supervisors appointed Hernandez to replace Gary McBride as the county’s chief executive officer. By that point, Hernandez had made a final demonstration of his loyalty to Hagman, having receded from aggressively looking into the political activity ongoing in Rowe’s office, thereby avoiding churning up or forcing to the surface 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.
Ultimately, the Sentinel ascertained, Hernandez opted out of carrying out a forensic analysis of the computers at Knox’s, Lesovsky’s and Swallow’s workstations or conducting any inquiry that would 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 which political candidates they were working on behalf of. Hernandez, from the standpoint of what was best for the advancement of his career, backed away from determining if the political activity Knox, Lesovsky and Swallow were engaged in was being coordinated with, through or at the behest of Supervisor Rowe. If his probe included evaluating the various supervisors’ emails and electronic communications, Hernandez on his own or in conjunction with McBride determined it would be prudent not to publicly reveal if he had come across any communications between Supervisor Rowe and her employees with regard to that political activity.
A multitude of factors appear to have gone into Hernandez’s decision to stand down in the assignment to look into political activity emanating out of the supervisors’ offices. Hernandez’s then-capacity as the county’s chief operating officer gave him access to the county’s assets, facilities, personnel, information and data, including that which could be gleaned from the county’s informational technology division, which would have permitted him to conduct a full-dimensional investigation to get to the bottom of the political activity that was ongoing within Supervisor Rowe’s office in which Lesovsky, Knox, Swallow and any others 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 host 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 took up his position as supervisor. Another reason Hernandez chose to eighty-six the investigation was that Rutherford’s staff had also been implicated in political activity. Swallow, after serving as Rowe’s communications director, returned to Rutherford’s office. Additionally, Phil Paule, Rutherford’s chief of staff, was moonlighting during the 2020 election cycle 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, 2020, 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. 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, worked on behalf of Obernolte’s congressional campaign. The Obernolte for Congress campaign paid Paule’s company, Paule Consulting, $10,000 for his assistance in the 2020 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 campaign 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, 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.
At least in part because of his willingness to shut down the investigation that Rutherford had seemed to commission and make sure that none of the information he turned up saw the light of day, Hernandez was awarded with being elevated to the county’s highest ranking staff position in October.
By keeping a lid on Hernandez’s investigation into the political activity within the various supervisors’ offices, Hagman earned the appreciation of Rowe, Cook and, ironically because she had touched it off, Rutherford. This appears to be a proximate reason for Rowe, Cook and Rutherford’s willingness to have Hagman remain as board chairman.
Hernandez, who was pulling down $206,650.80 yearly in salary as chief operating officer along with $26,567.20 in other pay and $117,390.60 in annual benefits for a total annual compensation package of $350,608.60, saw his annual salary zoom to around $302,000 and his total compensation package jump to somewhere in excess of $510,000 with his appointment to chief executive officer. Using public money, Hagman has purchased Hernandez’s loyalty.
Of note is that in justifying keeping Hagman in position as board chairman, first Rowe and then Cook cited Hagman’s performance in leading the county in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The county’s track record with respect to its response to the crisis brought on by the spread of the coronavirus, however, is checkered at best.
A critical shortcoming was the county’s employment of Trudy Raymundo as the county’s director of public health and Hagman’s initial unwillingness, in his role as board chairman last year, to come to terms with the implication of her failure to perform adequately as the coronavirus crisis in San Bernardino County deepened. Raymundo, who acceded to the director’s position in 2012, had been an employee with county since 1990, and was moved into a position within the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health as a program coordinator in 1997. Over the next dozen years she served in the capacity of administrative analyst in the department and then promoted into the position of assistant director. In 2010, she was elevated to serve as interim director of the department. In 2012, the qualifier “interim” was dropped from her title and she became the public health department’s director.
Raymundo is neither a nurse nor a doctor, and she has no extensive training in the field of medicine or the biological sciences. Rather, she holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting and business management from California State University San Bernardino. Her elevation to the head of the public health department was freely entered into by Greg Devereaux, then the county’s chief executive officer, as well as the board of supervisors in 2012. The calculation at that time was that Raymundo, as a numbers cruncher who had no training or especial interest in medical or public health issues, was someone who would not get abstracted into the minutiae of, or worry about, the latest trends in public health maintenance and medicine and addressing any single individual’s or groups of individuals’ medical needs but who would instead focus on the bottom line, concerning herself with economic management of the department and constraining her underlings to conforming to the budget the board of supervisors and the county chief executive officer had laid out for her to remain within.
There were repeated indications over the years that Raymundo was essentially unschooled with regard to public health issues, per se. As the head of the department, Raymundo was called upon to present reports to the board of supervisors with regard to items that body needed to consider and vote upon relating to public health issues. Raymundo was credited with having authored those reports, most of which dealt with the topics in question on a relatively superficial level without going into great depth, and giving the board members only a basic orientation and voting recommendation. Occasional press inquiries made directly to Raymundo, however, laid bare that she had no command whatsoever of the contents of those reports or the technical considerations upon which they were based. Indeed, after a relative handful of such inquiries, the county made a practice of routing any further such inquiries away from her to either the county’s official spokesman or a woman specifically hired to serve as the public health department’s spokesperson.
In the months just prior to the pandemic, as the coming crisis loomed and those steeped in the medical sciences had an inkling of what was to come, Raymundo, because of her lack of medical expertise, failed to foresee the importance of preparing for what was to befall the county.
In the crucial month-and-a-half to two-month run-up to the pandemic manifesting locally in March, Raymundo, who was provided with a base annual salary and add-ons equal to $196,349.73, together with $103,046.36 in benefits for a total yearly compensation of $299,396.09, failed to act with alacrity and use her hard-nosed business acumen and the negotiating leverage she had as a department head with California’s fifth-largest county population-wise to purchase adequate reserves of equipment, devices, materials and medicine, particularly the reagent needed to perform virus testing, to meet the crisis head on.
Essentially, throughout the initial stages of the crisis, public health officials and the medical community in San Bernardino County were flying blind, as they were unable to test anything more than a minute percentage of the population. Nevertheless, Hagman, under whose watch the county was functioning, engaged in defense after defense of Raymundo’s failure to act.
In the last week of March, the health department offered what it said would be testing for the most vulnerable element of the county population, including those aged 65 or older with the signs of COVID-19, including fever, cough, lethargy, and difficulty breathing. When county residents evincing that symptomology applied for those testing opportunities, an untold number were turned away with no acknowledgment whatsoever that they had even applied. This was repeated over the course of the next couple of weeks when the county claimed it was again hosting testing clinics. Despite the health department at that point having the phone numbers or email addresses of a significant number of individuals who had potentially contracted the coronavirus, the department of public health made no follow-up with them to check on their welfare or COVID-19 status.
The testing debacle prompted Hagman to put out a guardedly apologetic statement on April 10 that, “We understand the high demand for COVID-19 testing in our county and we are making every effort to organize drive-through events throughout the county. We are working closely with state and federal partners and exploring all avenues to increase testing capacity, despite a nationwide challenge with shortage of supplies.”
As the inadequacy of the county’s COVID-19 response became ever more clear, an effort to distance Hagman and the board of supervisors from the debacle was made. CaSonya Thomas, the county’s assistant executive director of human services, to whom the public health department is answerable, in a memo dated May 4 to the sheriff, district attorney, county treasurer, assessor, county chief financial officer, the county’s deputy executive officers and all county department heads announced Raymundo’s departure.
“The purpose of this memo is to share with you that Trudy Raymundo has announced her intention to resign from her position as the county’s director of public health effective May 29,” Thomas wrote.
Hagman took the lead in what turned into a legal action by the board of supervisors requesting the California Supreme Court to enter an order rescinding Governor Gavin Newsom’s precautionary mandates aimed at reducing the spread of the potentially deadly virus in a number of California counties where the contagion was running rampant. Those mandates called for the closures of restaurants and a host of other businesses where there is close contact between customers and employees which could lead to the spread of the condition. The legal action asked for the Supreme Court to quash the governor’s order and rescind the business closures in San Bernardino County.
The county, employing Murrietta-based attorney Robert Tyler in making that filing with the state’s highest court, did so despite the consideration that San Bernardino County was experiencing the highest level of COVID-19 infection rates among all counties in the state at the time it was undertaking the legal action. Between December 14, the day Tyler made the filing with the California Supreme Court, and December 21 inclusive, 134 deaths of county residents were attributed to the disease. That included 52 deaths over a 48-hour period on December 19 and 20. Deaths wholly or partially attributable to COVID-19 in San Bernardino County reached their apex on December 16, when 63 people died. The death rate in December eclipsed that of the summertime coronavirus surge, when, during the seven days of August 2 to August 9, inclusive, 129 people died.
Hagman and the board of supervisors resolved to move ahead with the legal action in response to local officials complaining that Newsom’s order was threatening the livelihoods of a vast number of business owners, and that the restrictions have already forced many entrepreneurs out of business permanently, and continuing restrictions were on the brink of doing the same to a substantial number of others.
Tyler’s filing sought a suspension of the stay-at-home-orders and other restrictions to San Bernardino County.
On Wednesday January 13, the California Supreme Court denied San Bernardino County’s petition to overturn Governor Newsom’s precautionary mandates aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.
On January 5, Hagman said he found Rowe’s praise for his leadership of the county in its COVID-19 response, “embarrassing.”
Following the board vote to retain him as chairman, Hagman said, “I just want to say thank you to my colleagues for the vote of confidence. Very humbling! Thank you, and we’ll just keep trying to work as a team to get through what 2021 brings. Hopefully it’s not as eventful as 2020. We’ll continue to work as we have been. It’s a great team, including all the directors and staff we have at the county, and all the county employees and the residents working together.”
Hagman Ascendant With Unprecedented Second Straight Term As Board Chair
By Mark Gutglueck