Local Spin: Wet Works
Former water commish’s attorneys go document hunting.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Raise your hand if you have been employed by the county, or serve on a public board somewhere in the county. Now wiggle your fingers up if the word “desal” entered your lexicon in the past few years. Congratulations. You’ve probably been named in a records subpoena sent to the county by attorney Michael Lawrence.
Lawrence is one half of the defense team representing Steve Collins, the CPA/ag-industry consultant and former Monterey County Water Resources Agency board member who’s been charged with 42 criminal counts, including a pair of felony conflict-of-interest charges, related to his role in the now-drowned Regional Desalination Project. Collins, while acting as a board member, took a private consulting gig with RMC Water and Environment, which landed the $28 million contract to manage the $400 million-plus desal project.
And then it all went to hell.
In addition to Collins’ looming criminal trial, there’s an ongoing investigation by the state Fair Political Practices Commission, the watchdog agency that likely has a couple of county supervisors and other local officials a tad nervous. Ann Ravel, head of the FPPC, told the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch she’s focusing her agency’s powers on major cases, including conflict of interest. It’s not yet clear if or when the FPPC may announce fines or criminal charges related to Monterey County’s desal debacle.
Collins was supposed to have a preliminary hearing in Monterey County Superior Court this week. But it’s been postponed until October, partly because the county counsel’s office is figuring out which documents to hand over to Lawrence, and which to protect.
Lawrence has asked for all writings (including emails) in the county’s possession dating back to 2009 that refer or relate to Collins from a who’s-who of county politicians and businesspeople: County Counsel Charles McKee and Deputy County Counsel Irv Grant; Supervisors Fernando Armenta, Lou Calcagno, Dave Potter, Jane Parker and Simon Salinas; County Chief Administrator Lew Bauman; Calcagno’s and Potter’s aides; former county Water Resources Agency General Manager Curtis Weeks; Wini Chambliss, the clerk of the agency’s board; and David Kimbrough, the agency’s finance manager.
He’s looking for any Collins-related county emails to or from Marina Coast counsel Lloyd Lowery; Marina Coast General Manager Jim Heitzman; RMC President Lyndel Melton; Jim Bogart, president of the powerful ag lobby Grower-Shipper Association, which appointed Collins to the water board; and Ed Boutonnet and Dale Huss, CEO and vice president, respectively, of artichoke-growing giant Ocean Mist Farms. He also wants relevant communications from a handful of lawyers from Downey Brand, the county’s outside counsel.
Deputy County Counsel Susan Blitch says the county has already turned over 1,554 pages and another 200 electronic documents. The county filed a brief April 11 opposing Lawrence’s demand; coupled with the demand letters themselves, it lays out a fascinating premise to the case. Curtis Weeks, various county employees and more than one county supervisor actively urged Collins to become involved in the desal project beyond his role as a water board member, Lawrence writes. County officials, employees and independent contractors mulled over whether greater involvement would constitute a conflict of interest, Lawrence suggests, and concluded there would be no conflict if Collins served two masters – the county and RMC.
The county maintains that much of what Lawrence seeks is covered under attorney-client privilege, with the holder of that privilege being a majority of the Board of Supervisors. And only that majority can vote to waive the attorney-privilege. (Figure the odds of that happening.)
“It’s a well-established privilege and fosters free dialogue and we have a duty to assert it,” Blitch says. Lawrence, though, says different standards apply in a criminal prosecution.
The county’s brief leaves the best part for the end. Under what’s called Section 1090, the code under which Collins has been charged with conflict of interest, a public official can’t be held liable as an aider and abettor for another’s 1090 violation, if the public official doesn’t have a personal financial interest in the contract.
Every public official in the county had an interest – admittedly, maybe not a direct financial one – in the success of the Regional Desal Plant. But even if other county officials actually did something wrong in the Collins case, they probably can’t be held to answer for it, unless and until the FPPC acts.
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at email@example.com.