By Mark Gutglueck
Sacramento’s loss is San Bernardino County’s gain, according to word emanating from the Fifth Floor of the County Administrative Complex.
Sometime next month, after Thurston Smith leaves the California Assembly as a result of his being defeated on November 8 in his contest for reelection, he will very likely check in as San Bernardino County’s newly appointed First District supervisor, displacing Paul Cook, the former assemblyman and congressman who abandoned those two higher offices when he ran successfully for supervisor in 2020.
According to well-placed individuals within the county’s governmental structure, the current First District Supervisor, Paul Cook, does not meet the residency requirement to hold his elective post. His departure as supervisor is imminent, the Sentinel was told.
The Republican establishment, or that wing of it that surrounds the county’s center of power, is insistent that the gap to be created with Cook’s departure be filled with Smith, a deviation from the previous expectation that Cook would be succeeded by his handpicked successor, his chief of staff, Tim Itnyre.
Cook, who had joined the Marine Corps in 1966 after he had obtained a bachelor’s degree in education at Southern Connecticut University in anticipation of becoming a teacher, served in Vietnam, was highly decorated and achieved the rank of colonel before he retired in 1992. Relatively late in his career, he was stationed at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, during which time he began a transition back to the civilian existence he had abandoned at the age of 23. He settled with his wife in Yucca Valley, where he was a parishioner at St. Mary of the Valley Church.
He gradually immersed himself into social and educational life there. Upon retiring from the Marines, from 1993 to 1994 he found employment as the director of the Yucca Valley Chamber of Commerce and he began attending California State University San Bernardino, working on his Master of Public Administration degree, which he obtained in 1996. He then continued his studies at CSUSB, obtaining a master’s degree in political science in 2000. Starting in 1998 he worked as a professor at Copper Mountain College and after the September 2001 terrorist attacks he parlayed his status as a retired Marine Corps colonel and his degrees into a professorship beginning in 2002 at the University of California Riverside, where he taught courses on political violence and terrorism.
Simultaneously, Cook had grown to become one of Yucca Valley’s leading citizens and he acceded to a position on the Yucca Valley Town Council. In 2004, he had a palatial 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 at the northwestern end of Yucca Valley. While he was on the city council, his colleagues conferred upon him the honorific of mayor.
In 2006, Cook moved up the political evolutionary chain to become a member of the California Assembly, representing the 65th District, consisting of the cities of Banning, Beaumont, Big Bear Lake, Calimesa, Cherry Valley, Hemet, Moreno Valley, Perris, San Jacinto, Sun City, Twentynine Palms, Yucaipa, Yucca Valley and other smaller communities and unincorporated areas in Riverside County, San Bernardino County, Inyo County and Mono County.
In 2012, the timing for Cook, who was about to be termed out of the Assembly, proved perfect, as that year Jerry Lewis retired after 34 years as congressman. Cook leapt into the breach and was elected to become a member of California’s congressional delegation, representing the Golden State’s 8th Congressional District. His most prominent roles in Congress were as a member of the House Natural Resources and Armed Services committees.
After more than seven years in that capacity, the 76-year-old Cook in 2019 felt himself slowing down. Concerned that his mental facilities were waning and wearying of the cross-continental travel that he had to endure on a regular basis, Cook announced late that summer he would leave Congress at the end of his term. Instead, he said, he intended to run for San Bernardino County supervisor, representing not the Third District where he lived, which was represented by a former member of his congressional staff, Dawn Rowe, but another portion of the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, the First District, where, conveniently, the incumbent supervisor there, Robert Lovingood, was retiring.
Cook’s change in status from a federal legislator to one of the overseers of county government would require what was called by his supporters and advisors an “artificial” change of residence from his actual home in Yucca Valley in the Third District so he could qualify for his 2020 run for First District supervisor. As it turned out, Tim Itnyre, the then-38-year-old son of Cook’s close friends, Robert and Cathy Itnyre, was willing to accommodate Cook at his home at 23395 Taos Road in Apple Valley, so that Cook could establish a residence in the First District to run for supervisor there. Shortly after Cook made his announcement that he was seeking a position on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and would be leaving Congress, his chief of staff, John Sobel, tendered his resignation. Cook thereupon appointed Tim Itnyre to replace Sobel as his chief of staff. At that point, officially at least, Paul Cook’s voter registration changed, as he listed himself with the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters’ Office as residing at Itnyre’s Taos Road address.
Cook was not the only one who had jumped at the opportunity to run for First District supervisor in the aftermath of Lovingood’s retirement decision. Adelanto Councilwoman Stevevonna Evans, Victorville Councilwoman Rita Ramirez-Dean and Marcelino Garza likewise tossed their hats into the ring.
Members of the public and journalists who questioned how it was that Cook as a longtime Yucca Valley resident was able to vie for the supervisor’s post in the First District were given assurances by the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters’ Office that Cook had made a change of residence into the First District and had met all of the re-registration criteria.
Cook collected or otherwise deposited, in the final four months of 2019, $333,567 into his political war chest for the campaign for supervisor, including making transferences out of his congressional campaign account. He simultaneously spent $37,300.97 toward the upcoming campaign up until December 31, 2019. He then collected another $108,510.73 in contributions for his supervisorial campaign during the first six months of 2020 and spent $372,461.28 on the campaign prior to the March 3, 2020 election.
The $409,762.25 Cook spent on his 2020 electioneering effort was more than 137 times the combined $2,988.44 spent by Evans, Ramirez-Dean and Garza in their campaigns. That overkill bought Cook an overwhelming victory, as he trounced all three with 31,230 votes or 64.66 percent, well ahead of second place finisher Ramirez-Dean, who polled 9,979 votes or 21.57 recent, Garza’s 3,557 votes or 8.17 percent and Evans’ 2,599 or 5.6 percent in the election, held in conjunction with California’s March 2020 Primary. Since Cook had garnered a majority of the vote, he avoided a runoff against the second-place finisher, Ramirez-Dean.
After his victory in the supervisorial contest, Cook remained in place as the 8th Congressional District congressman. The 116th United States Congress to which Cook had been elected in November 2018 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 Itnyre as Cook’s First District chief of staff 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. If anyone pressed the issue, it was asserted that he was in residence at Itnyre’s home. The authority and status of both Cook and Itnyre stood off any further questioning or untoward suggestions.
While Cook and Itnyre made a show of indicating publicly if the subject ever came up that Cook was in compliance with the residency requirements for holding a position on the board of supervisors by residing at Itnyre’s residence in Apple Valley, that is no longer the case. Moreover, it seems, Colonel Cook never resided, in actuality, at 23395 Taos Road in Apple Valley.
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 Itnyre as his chief of staff and his assistant chief of staff, Dakota Higgins; along with Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe; her former Chief of Staff, Matt Knox; Fourth District Supervisor and Board Chairman Curt Hagman; and County Chief Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez, among others, have had abiding knowledge of Cook’s actual residency status.
Over the past 23 months, the circle of those who are aware that Cook has not been and is not in compliance with the residency requirements for the elective post he holds has grown. Cook’s office staff has control over Cook’s schedule, calendar and itinerary. Members of his staff 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. The entirety of his staff knows their boss is living outside the district he represents as do several of the staffers for Rowe and Hagman.
Hernandez and his staff likewise had access to Cook’s schedule, calendar and itinerary. 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 are fully cognizant of Cook’s actual living circumstance, one county employee stated. Nevertheless, the Sentinel was told, there was only a marginal prospect that the circumstance would come to light, since Hernandez, who rules the county with an iron fist, and Hagman, who is the dominant political personage in the county, deemed it to be in their personal interest to keep Cook in place.
It was widely anticipated that Cook would opt against seeking reelection in 2024 and that he would likely designate his heir apparent, Itnyre, as the candidate to beat in that year’s First District race by providing him not only with his endorsement but the full assistance of the money remaining in his political war chest. For that reason and others, the entire political and administrative establishment was willing to abide the situation, according to an individual whose function brings him in constant contact with the San Bernardino County Administrative Building’s Fifth Floor.
That changed on November 8 when 33rd District Assemblyman Thurston Smith, who had been placed by virtue of the decennial reapportionment that came with the 2020 Census into the newly drafted 34th Assembly District. The redistricting of the California Legislature’s jurisdictions had placed Smith’s fellow Republican, 36th District Assemblyman Tom Lackey, into the 34th District as well. Despite Smith besting Lackey in this year’s June primary election, which put them into a runoff on November 8 against one another, in that contest for the seat in the 34th District, which includes portions of San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Kern counties, Smith lost.
In both his 2000 race for the Assembly in the 33rd District and in this year’s competition in which he fought to remain in California’s lower legislative house, a contingent of business interests, entities with governmental contracts and Republican Party donors from San Bernardino County heavily backed Smith, who had proven himself to be faithfully responsive to the local establishment and even more highly amenable to the policy directives of his political patrons in his past stints in the publicly-elected capacities he filled as a Hesperia councilman and Hesperia mayor from 2006 to 2014, along with being a board member on the Mojave Water Agency from 2016 to 2020 and in his single term in the Assembly.
Smith draws his patrons from the same ranks as donors who have consistently backed Republican candidates throughout San Bernardino County. The number of registered Democratic voters in San Bernardino County eclipsed the number of voters who identify as Republicans in 2009. The registration gap between the two competing parties has widened in favor of the Democrats to the point that, at present, of the current 1,142,138 people registered to vote in the county, Democrats at 471,531 or 41.3 percent significantly outnumber Republicans, at 333,860 29.2 percent. At the same time, 242,947 San Bernardino County voters or 21.3 percent state they have no party preference and 8.2 percent of the county’s voters affiliate with the American Independent, Green, Libertarian, Peace and Freedom and other more obscure political parties. Despite what would seem to be a resultant solid Democratic Party political advantage in San Bernardino County, Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated themselves to be far more capable than their Democratic rivals at hitching all of the horses to the same side of their campaign wagons and pulling in the same direction, outhustling the Democrats when it comes to raising money and then applying it in promoting GOP candidates and causes with radio and television spots, newspaper ads, billboards, handbills, mailers, polling and phone banks. Consequently, though California is a thoroughly Democratic state, San Bernardino County remains one of the last remaining Republican bastions within it.
The Inland Empire Business Alliance, Business Leaders for Ethical Government, Jeff Burrum, 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, Jeff Burum, 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, Travis Parke, Tom Smith, Ryan Hutchinson, Mark Guirguis, Mandave Sandhu, Chris Hitt, Kimberly Cox, Jeanne Kennedy, Patricia Tate, David Mlynarsk, 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, Robert Tarango, Ed Scott, Percy Bakker and Ted Alejandre all invested in Smith’s political career and his effort to remain in the Assembly. Several, particularly those who made substantial donations to his Assembly campaign, are intent on preventing the money they spent from being entirely squandered and they believe they can recoup the value of what they put into their effort to purchase a position of influence over the governmental structure which regulates their various industries and functions by having Smith assume the authority at the county that Cook captured two years ago. While the roster of those who backed Smith in his campaign against Lackey is in large measure indistinguishable from the list of donors who over the years have bankrolled Cook in his electioneering efforts and Cook is very likely to return the favor in any circumstance where the projects or contracts being pursued by those donors come before the board of supervisors for approval, he will become an octogenarian in March. As such, Cook represents at best a fleeting presence in the decision-making role he now fills. Smith potentially offers those who are willing to put up sufficient money to secure influence at the Hall of San Bernardino County Administration a reliable vote on the board of supervisors for another decade.
The circumstance with regard to Cook officially claiming a residential status that is at odds with actuality so that he can represent the people of a district wherein he does not himself actually live has involved Hernandez as the county’s highest ranking staff member, a number of employees within the county’s administrative office, both supervisors Hagman and Rowe and some of their employees and virtually everyone on Cook’s staff in the perpetration of activity that under a straightforward and reasonable interpretation constitutes a criminal conspiracy. Those who are among the rarified breed of the most aggressive and informed patrons of the county’s politicians see this as an opportunity to pressure Cook into resigning while simultaneously ensuring that the board of supervisors will replace him with their ideal in terms of the options that exist for someone to occupy the First District board position who will ensure their interests are looked after.
The Sentinel this week addressed a handful of questions growing out of the circumstance to Cook, Itnyre, Hernandez, Hagman, Rowe and David Wert, the county’s public information officer.
Those questions included whether the county is now acknowledging that Supervisor Cook is no longer living at 23395 Taos Road in Apple Valley, how long he has he not been in residence at 23395 Taos Road in Apple Valley and if Cook ever actually lived at 23395 Taos Road in Apple Valley.
The Sentinel in an email requested from Hernandez and Wert what steps the Registrar of Voters’ Office took to verify Cook’s residency to determine his eligibility to run for First District supervisor. Based upon Cook’s long recognized residency in Yucca Valley, his previous status as both a councilman and mayor in that town and that he had used the 54989 Country Club Drive address in Yucca Valley address in running for the California Assembly and the House of Representatives and was yet using that address when he resolved to run for the board of supervisors, the Sentinel inquired as to what the Registrar of Voters did to verify the affidavit Cook filed in asserting residency in the First District and if the registrar merely accept the affidavit at face value without any verification. The Sentinel through an email sought from the county an explanation of how the registrar of voters resolved the discrepancy between Cook’s previous registrations, not only as a voter but as a candidate, that placed him in Yucca Valley, outside the confines of the First District, and his assertion of residency in 2019 in Apple Valley.
Wert did not respond to those inquiries. Neither did the county respond to the Sentinel’s email request that it provide a copy of Cook’s affidavit of residency when he re-registered to vote in Apple Valley.
The Sentinel by email inquired of Tim Itnyre about Cook’s claim of residency at his home in Apple Valley and whether he was prepared to acknowledge that Cook was not actually living there. Itnyre did not respond.
County Chief Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez did not respond to the Sentinel’s email inquiry about his knowledge with regard to where Cook is now residing, how long he had known about Cook not living in the First District and if he had known, from the outset of Cook’s tenure as First District supervisor, that Cook was not living in the First District. The Sentinel also asked Hernandez if an effort to secure Cook’s resignation from the First District supervisorial post was under way or if the county was going to initiate such an effort as well as how long it would take to effectuate Supervisor Cook’s removal. Hernandez was asked what dialogue he had engaged in with Cook about the supervisor’s residency or if he was privy to such a discussion with Board Chairman Hagman or Supervisor Rowe. The Sentinel further asked Hernandez if he had discussed Cook’s residency with Itnyre or Matt Knox, who had been a staff member for Cook while he was a congressman and who later joined Rowe’s office as her chief of staff.
Hernandez declined to respond.
The county did not confirm but did nothing to deny or dispute that a move is afoot to have Smith replace Cook in the First District supervisorial capacity upon his departure from the Assembly.
An indication that a move is afoot to bring Smith in as Cook’s replacement representing the First District consists of the county having removed from the Registrar of Voters website the California Form 460 documents which list the donors to Smith’s 2020 and 2022 electoral campaigns and the amounts of money those donations entailed.
The Sentinel inquired of both supervisors Hagman and Rowe with regard to their knowledge about Cook’s residency during his tenure as First District supervisor. They did not respond.
The Sentinel followed its written email inquiries to Wert, Hernandez and Itnyre up with multiple phone calls. Those calls were not returned by press time.
Efforts to reach Cook in person and by phone were not successful.
At 2:48 p.m. on Friday, November 18, an employee in Cook’s Apple Valley office who took a call from the Sentinel said Cook had been in that office earlier that day but at that point the supervisor was out of the office in the company of Itnyre.
Multiple efforts, consisting of an email and phone calls, to get a statement directly from Smith relating to whether he will seek or accept the appointment as First District supervisor were unsuccessful.
By Mark Gutglueck