By Mark Gutglueck
First District San Bernardino County Supervisor Paul Cook is digging his heels in as momentum is building toward what those with regard for his legacy had hoped would be his voluntary resignation and what increasingly appears will be his forced removal from office.
At issue is the 79-year-old’s residency in Yucca Valley within the county’s Third Supervisorial District, outside the First District, which he has represented since December 2020. County officials have tacitly acknowledged that Cook, first in declaring and then qualifying his candidacy for the supervisor’s post in 2019, misrepresented that his domicile was in Apple Valley. At that time, the abrupt dismissal of questions from those who were aware of Cook’s longtime residency in Yucca Valley dissuaded the public from pursuing an examination of whether Cook in actuality had changed his residence to the First District. Cook had been a councilman and mayor in Yucca Valley in the early 2000s, where in 2004 he built a 3,527-square foot home built on a 1.15-acre lot on Country Club Drive overlooking the 12-hole Hawk’s Landing Golf Course. That was his declared residence when he successfully ran in 2006 to represent the 65th Assembly District in the California Legislature and was reelected in 2008 and 2010, as it was in 2012 when he was elected to represent California’s 8th Congressional District and was reelected in 2014, 2016 and 2018.Cook’s claim in 2019 had been that he was living at the home of one of his Congressional staff members, Tim Itnyre, located in the 23300 block of Taos Road in Apple Valley. The San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Office accepted Cook’s assertion at face value and declared his candidacy for First District Supervisor based thereon as valid. Over the course of his campaign, Cook collected $442,077.73 in contributions for his campaign for supervisor and spent $409,762.25 on that electioneering effort, which was 137 times the combined $2,988.44 spent by his three opponents in the supervisor’s race, Adelanto City Councilwoman Stevevonna Evans, Victorville Councilwoman Rita Ramirez-Dean and Marcelino Garza. In the March 3, 2020 balloting held in conjunction with the California 2020 Presidential Primary Election, Cook trounced the competition, with 31,230 votes or 64.66 percent, well ahead of second place finisher Ramirez-Dean, who polled 9,979 votes or 21.57 percent, Garza’s 3,557 votes or 8.17 percent and Evans’ 2,599 or 5.6 percent. Having captured more than fifty percent of the votes cast, Cook avoided a runoff in that year’s November election which would have been required if no single candidate had captured a majority.
Later that year, when Cook’s congressional chief of staff, John Sobel, tendered his resignation, he appointed Tim Itnyre to replace Sobel as his chief of staff.
The 116th United States Congress to which Cook was elected in November 2018 had convened on January 3, 2019 and ended on January 3, 2021. Cook, because he could not hold two elective offices at once, resigned from Congress on December 7, 2020, just prior to his being sworn in as First District San Bernardino County supervisor.
The following day, the board approved the hiring of Tim Itnyre, the son of two of Cook’s closest friends, Robert and Cathy Itnyre, as the First District chief of staff to serve under Supervisor Cook at a total cost to the county of $217,828 annually, based on his salary of $131,934 and yearly benefit package of $85,894.
While there were yet some lingering questions as to where it was that Cook was actually living, the official narrative was that he was living in Apple Valley. To those bold enough to press the issue, it was asserted the supervisor was in residence at Itnyre’s home. The status, authority and sheer power of both Cook and Itnyre stood off any further questioning or untoward suggestions.
While Cook and Itnyre made a show of indicating, if the subject ever came up, that Cook was in compliance with the residency requirements for the supervisorial position he held, Cook never resided, in actuality, at 23395 Taos Road in Apple Valley. His residence in Yucca Valley was a widely kept secret among those at the highest echelon in the county. Based on information provided to the Sentinel and which has been verified and augmented with further research, it appears that the entirety of Supervisor Cook’s office, including his assistant chief of staff, Dakota Higgins; Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe, who had been a member of Cook’s congressional staff before she was appointed Third District supervisor in 2018; Rowe’s former Chief of Staff, Matt Knox, who had been employed as a member of Cook’s congressional staff; Fourth District Supervisor and Board Chairman Curt Hagman; and County Chief Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez, among others, had knowledge of Cook’s actual residency status prior to his election as supervisor.
Cook’s schedule, calendar and itinerary were under the control of Cook’s office staff, members of which chauffeured the supervisor about from time to time, including from 54989 Country Club Drive in Yucca Valley to the County Administrative Complex in San Bernardino on meeting dates and then back again. Hernandez and his staff likewise had access to Cook’s schedule, calendar and itinerary. For the first 23 months that Cook served in the role of supervisor, no one, in particular, within the circle of those who were knowledgeable about Cook’s residency, which included at least half of the county’s administrative staff, all of whom are directly answerable to Hernandez and work primarily on the Fifth Floor of the San Bernardino County Administrative Headquarters at 385 N. Arrowhead Avenue in San Bernardino, had an interest in exposing the situation. With Hagman, Rowe and Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford, Cook was one of the four Republican members of the five-member board of supervisors, and as such part of the ruling coalition that controlled the county. Indeed, given the comfortable circumstances all involved found themselves involved in, rocking the county’s ship of state, as it were, would have been decidedly contrary to their collective and individual interests, been ill-advised and would have been considered such poor form that whoever blabbed might find himself or herself unemployed or out of office in short order.
Political events, however, overtook Cook as a consequence of this year’s November 8 election, one in which Cook was not a candidate.
Competing on the ballot was Thurston Smith, the incumbent Republican in the 33rd Assembly District. Smith, a former Hesperia city councilman and mayor and Mojave Water Agency board member, had seen his political career advance as a result of Cook’s decision not to seek reelection to Congress in 2020 and instead run for supervisor. Then 33rd District Assemblyman Jay Obernolte rushed to immediately fill the future void that Cook’s departure from the U.S. House of Representatives was to create, and he announced he would run for to replace Cook in representing California’s 8th Congressional District. The same band of deep-pocketed political donors who had up until that point heavily invested in Cook’s and Obernolte’s political careers agreed to bankroll in the 2020 electoral season Cook’s transition to the board of supervisors and Obernolte’s move to Washington, D.C. while simultaneously getting behind an effort to have Obernolte’s place in the Assembly representing the 33rd District remain in the hands of a Republican. In this case, Smith, a pliant personage whose loyalty to those who would sponsor his progression up the political ladder could be guaranteed, was selected to succeed Obernolte.
As it turned out, in the same March 3, 2020 election, Obernolte managed to place first among nine candidates, including four Republicans other than himself, three Democrats and one unaligned candidate. In the November 2020 general election, he outpaced Democrat Christine Bubser, 151,376 votes or 56.64 percent to 115 votes or 43.36 percent. In the primary election, Smith faced four Democrats and two other Republicans. He claimed first place, with 32,891 or 37.9 percent of the vote. He went toe-to-toe-with the second-place finisher, Big Bear Lake Mayor Rick Herrick, in November, winning with 86,948 votes or 54.85 percent to Herrick’s 71,567 votes or 45.15 percent.
In his capacity as a State legislator, Smith had proven himself to be faithfully responsive to the local establishment and every bit as amenable to the policy directives of his political patrons while he was in Sacramento as he had been during his past stints in doing their bidding when he was in the publicly-elected capacities of Hesperia councilman and mayor and Mojave Water Agency board member.
The Republicans in California generally and those in San Bernardino in particular had little influence in controlling how Assembly district lines would be drawn as a result of the decennial reapportionment based upon the 2020 Census. Smith found himself placed into the newly drafted 34th Assembly District along with his fellow Republican, 36th District Assemblyman Tom Lackey. Whereas the old 33rd Assembly District which Smith represents lies almost entirely in San Bernardino County, the new 34th District in which he had to compete took in desert portions of northwestern San Bernardino, northeastern Los Angeles and south Kern counties. In California’s open primary system, Smith and Lackey competed in June against four others, including two Democrats, a Republican and a Democrat running as an independent. In that primary, Smith strongly outpolled Lackey in the San Bernardino County portion of the 34th, but ran well behind Lackey in Los Angeles and Kern counties, yet managed to place in first to Lackey’s second overall, primarily because of the votes claimed by the other four candidates. Thus, Smith faced Lackey in the November 8 general election.
On the San Bernardino County side of the divide in the 34th District, a committed set of political donors were ready to do whatever they could to keep Smith in Sacramento. Among them were The Inland Empire Business Alliance, Business Leaders for Ethical Government, Jeff Burum, Prem Reddy, Frank Bigelow, James Previti, Simon Bouzaglou, Randall Friend, Bruno Mancinelli, Jesse Armendarez, John Ohanian, Dino DeFazio, Randall Lesovsky, IMH Land Development Inc. President Ian Harvey, Wyn Holmes, Gerald Beard, San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee Chairman Phil Cothran Sr, Martha Cuevas, Joe Pattison, Chris Leggio, Julie Dammeier, Dieter Dammeier, Manuel Serrano, Cheryl Ricker, Eagle Real Estate, Raman Poola, Sukhdev Dhillon, Jim Walton, Kali Chaudhuri, Michael Rademaker, Dave Steeno, Robert Lovingood, Dwight Manley, Traci Hoops, Stacey Tarango, Frecia Germany, Richard Reeb, Larry Cusack, David Greiner, William Verret, Richard Rorex, Carl Coleman, Robert Basen, Barron Wilson, Kelly Bergstrom, Fred Nassif, Edward Roski Sr, Rebecca Otwell, Ryan Hutchinson, Mark Guirguis, Mandave Sandhu, Chris Hitt, Kimberly Cox, Jeanne Kennedy, Patricia Tate, David Mlynarski, Craig Hallmeyer, Chirag Mehta, Martin Kiefer, Vijay Arora, Darryl Evey, Eric Hansen, Donald Bartz, Paul Courtney, Ram Kamath, Terry Caldwell, Art Bishop, Chuck Bell, Gabor Besze, Eric Dunn, Chad Hitt, Brad Letner, Jim Cox, John Holliday, Ed Scott, Percy Bakker and Ted Alejandre.
Collectively, they funded an aggressive campaign on behalf of Smith featuring television and radio spots, newspaper ads, internet pop-ups, mailers, handbills, yard signs and billboards touting Smith and what were represented as his qualities and achievements as a public official and an even more aggressive campaign that consisted of attacks upon Lackey. The tactic backfired. The hit pieces and negative spots targeting Lackey, whether tailor designed for the 34th District’s high propensity Republican voters, high propensity Democratic voters or high propensity nonaligned voters, were in a majority of cases recognized as coming from Republican-aligned sources. This left the Democratic recipients wary of Smith and, in relative terms, inclined toward voting for Lackey. The Republican recipients, including those within San Bernardino County who had previously voted for Smith over Lackey in the primary, were taken aback at the attack launched upon a Republican by a Republican, which drove many to vote for Lackey.
As a result, Smith, who had won overwhelmingly over Lackey in San Bernardino County in June, 40.61 percent to 19.5 percent, managed a tepid 34,928 votes or 52.38 percent to Lackey’s 31,755 or 47.62 percent in San Bernardino County on November 8. In Kern County, Smith lost with 2,562 or 31.07 percent to Lackey’s 5,686 votes or 68.93 percent. On Lackey’s home turf of Los Angeles County, Lackey polled 25,576 votes or 70.19 percent to Smith’s 10,864 or 29.81 percent. Thus, Smith’s time as a state legislator will draw to a close next month.
Having put so much of their stock in Smith, the business and private interests that fuel the Republican political machine in San Bernardino County are not yet prepared to give up on their investments. While they recognize that Cook, who was put into place in large measure by their generosity to his various political campaigns, is attuned to their interests and a sure vote of support on any matter or issue impacting them, they are acutely conscious that Cook, at 79, is nearing the end of his political shelf life. The assumption of many has been that in 2024, the 81-year old Cook will gracefully ride into the sunset, anointing Itnyre as his successor. Keeping Cook in place over the next two years is not an indispensable priority.
With Smith’s November 8 loss, the necessity of sustaining the hold the Republican clique felt it had on the reins of government through him has come home in a way that heretofore was not recognized. Moreover, there is concern that Cook, while not descending into dementia exactly, is becoming somewhat eccentric in his declining years and prone to utterances, sometimes ones that are candid, frank and unguarded, which might expose the degree to which the decision-making process that is on display for the public during board of supervisors meetings, is choreographed ahead of time according to a set of priorities the clique would prefer the public not know about.
The desirability of Smith simply replacing Cook mid-term, such that Cook remains in the political limelight and maintains his electoral viability in 2024, either by running to remain as supervisor or in another run for Assembly or perhaps the State Senate, has dawned on many of those. As the discussion of how to achieve that evolved, the opportunity that has presented itself in the form of Cook’s residency status has come to the fore.
What was hoped was that someone would have a quiet little talk with Cook and, with no one getting excited and no real fanfare, the Colonel would announce that with the approach of his 80th birthday in March and with all of his major accomplishments behind him, he has come to the determination that it is time to pass the torch onto the generation that is coming into its own behind him. Under this scenario, Smith would be given the opportunity to serve out the remainder of his term as 33rd District assemblyman and the board of supervisors, with Jesse Armendarez, who on November 8 was elected to succeed outgoing Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford, would take his place on the county dais along with Hagman, Cook, Rowe and Fifth District Supervisor Joe Baca Jr. At that point, the board would take care of a few loose ends and housekeeping items, including selecting someone to serve in the capacity of county assessor from January 2023 until January 2025, the first two years of the four-year term to which the late Bob Dutton was elected in June, less than seven weeks before his July 23rd death. Shortly thereafter, after arrangements were made to ensure that Cook’s staff would remain in place and be taken care of, Cook would make his early retirement announcement and by the end of January or early February, Smith would be installed as the First District supervisor.
There was one catch, however. Cook is refusing to play along. Like the Marines who were besieged at Khe Sanh, he is determined to see things through, come what may, and he, rather than those who are seeking his ouster, will be the one left standing at the end of his term in 2024.
In the last fortnight, word has emanated from the Fifth Floor that Cook’s residency has now become an open issue, with everyone who knew about where he has been living for the last two years ducking for cover, lest they be implicated in a conspiracy to assist Cook in engaging in election fraud. A sad casualty in all of this is Itnyre, who just two months ago was the envy of all, as it was widely believed that he merely needed to stay in place in his $131,934 salary and $217,828 total annual compensation post for another two years, at which time the position of First District supervisors would drop into his lap, in essence by Cook designating him as his handpicked successor. Now, Itnyre has been placed into a high stakes poker game in which he must decide whether he should hold or fold. Shall he back his mentor, Cook, by maintaining the fiction that Cook is actually living under his roof in Apple Valley? When push comes to shove and he is asked to testify in that regard or sign an affidavit under penalty of perjury, what will he do? If he backs Cook, he will keep his chief of staff position, for the time being. But how long will Cook last? And when Cook goes – sooner or later – odds are that it will be Smith who replaces him. Will Smith keep Itnyre as his chief of staff or on his staff at all if Itnyre militates with Cook to have Cook remain as First District supervisor and prevent Smith from assuming the position that many feel he rightly deserves to fill? Itnyre’s other choice is to become a turncoat, betray Cook, one of his parents’ best friends, and cross over to the Smith team. If he does so decisively and early, he could be rewarded with keeping the First District chief of staff’s position another two years, four years, six years, ten years or until such time as Smith moves on to higher office, at which point Itnyre could inherit the supervisorial slot which until earlier this month was thought to be his due.
Reportedly, Cook, perhaps based upon Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution providing that members of Congress can represent a congressional district merely upon being “an inhabitant of the state in which he shall be chosen,” believes he has legal authority to remain as District 1 supervisor. His theory is buttressed by Senate Bill 1250, which was passed by the California Legislature in 2018 and signed into law by then-Governor Jerry Brown. Senate Bill 1250 provides that wherever a member of Congress or a member of the California Legislature is registered to vote is conclusively deemed to be his or her domicile. It specified a number of factors, such as claiming a homeowner’s tax exemption for another home, having a child living at another home so that child can be enrolled in a particular school, having a spouse or intimate partner living at another home for employment purposes, receiving mail or other postal or parcel deliveries at another home, having accounts for utilities, cable or satellite television, Internet service, home security service, home or landscape maintenance at another home, having registered a vehicle or boat at the address of another home or having items of personal property at another home, as ones which could not be cited to prove the congressmember or state legislator is not a resident of the place he or she claims as a domicile.
With Cook hanging his hat on Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution and Senate Bill 1250, those intent on seeing him removed so Smith can become First District supervisor point out that those pertain only to members of Congress and the California Legislature. In 2019, the Hesperia City Council removed Hesperia City Councilman Jeremiah Brosowske on the grounds he was not living in the city within the apartment he was renting in that city’s District 4. In 2021, the Victorville City Council removed Councilwoman Rita Ramirez-Dean from office based on her non-residency status.
While those close to county government say it is “inconceivable” that supervisors Rowe or Hagman will actively support removing Cook from office and District Attorney Jason Anderson is equally unwilling to use his office’s authority to undercut Cook, an effort to force the county’s hand is under way that Promises to leave Cook and his supporters in an untenable position, and which can only be cured by Cook’s willing or forced departure.
By Mark Gutglueck