Former Monterey County Water Agency board director Steve Collins pleaded no contest today to a felony conflict of interest charge stemming from his hidden role as a paid consultant on the failed Regional Desalination Plant.
Jury selection was to have started March 24 in the case, in which Collins faced 42 felony and misdemeanor counts, including the felony violation of Government Code Section 1090. That conflict of interest count stemmed from Collins' work as a paid consultant for RMC Water and Environment while also being a public official.
Collins has long acknowledged his role as a consultant on the failed desalination project, but also long claimed that role came at the behest of Monterey County Supervisor Lou Calcagno—and with the blessing of the County Counsel's office and knowledge and approval of multiple other county officials. He earned $160,000 for helping RMC win the $28 million management contract on the desal project, a gig that was arranged by Jim Heitzman, former general manager of desal project partner Marina Coast Water District.
But in a pre-trial hearing Monday morning, Monterey County Superior Court Judge Robert O'Farrell made it clear that a detailed account of who knew what when was not going to happen. O'Farrell said he wouldn't admit evidence and witnesses for Collins' planned defense of "entrapment by estoppel," meaning that even if higher authorities knew and encouraged him to take RMC's cash as a way of helping push the desal project through, it wouldn't be an acceptable defense.
"He did not want to expose himself to nearly 30 years in state prison after a trial in which Mr. Collins could not present his defense," his attorney Daniel Clymo writes by email to explain the last-minute change.
Collins told the Weekly this afternoon that O'Farrell's decision left him with no choice but to accept the deal. He said he was spending the afternoon sipping bourbon and playing with his grandchildren—and he sounded relieved to have the criminal case behind him.
"The judge's decision [Monday] eliminated my defense. I was essentially being invited to a gunfight and only being a allowed to bring a pocket knife," Collins says.
Asked if, in entering the plea, he was acknowledging wrongdoing, he responded with one word: "No."
But, he adds, he hopes to serve his probation doing work at Rancho Cielo.
Collins' plea precludes him from ever holding elected office in California.
Collins, a certified public accountant, also pleaded to a felony count of grand theft for billing client Ocean Mist Farms $89,000 over a three-year period for work he never performed. He also pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of receiving payment, as a public official, for performing official acts.
"It is very important from our perspective that he admitted wrongdoing," says Deputy District Attorney Stephanie Hulsey, who prosecuted the case. "One of the consequences of pleading to 1090 is he can never hold pubic office in the state of California and that's pretty significant. It protects people from similar conduct in the future."
In exchange for the plea, Collins faces up to a year in county jail, three years felony probation and a restitution order for the $89,000; 18 months after sentencing, Collins can petition the court to have his felony convictions reduced to misdemeanors.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) had suspended its investigation into whether Collins and others involved in the desalination project violated provisions of the Political Reform Act (PRA) until the conclusion of the criminal case. The FPPC can prosecute PRA violations through civil or administrative actions.
Collins first raised eyebrows in February 2011, when he recused himself himself from voting on the $28 million contract with RMC. The recusal indicated Collins had a financial conflict of interest—and a financial involvement in either the RCM contract or the Regional Water Project.
At the time, Salinas Valley Water Coalition Chairman Keith Roberts noted the coalition was concerned that Collins' conflict could jeopardize the project's future—a projection that came true in January 2012, when California American Water torpedoed plans to build the desalination plant with the county and Marina Coast as its partners.
Roberts was first to note Collins' recusal.
“Water projects are difficult enough to move through the public process," reads a letter to MCWRA from Roberts, "but without the public’s trust, it is impossible.”