WVWD Whistleblower Lawsuit
By Dianne Anderson
Kickbacks and backroom dealings usurped $1.1 million from the West Valley Water District are among numerous controversial charges in a recent whistleblower lawsuit that seeks to get the district’s money back.
On the question of how the money will be restored to the department, the attorney representing the plaintiffs said the California False Claims Act allows whistleblowers to come forward to sue on behalf of the water district.
“They are not suing the water district,” she said. “They’re suing on behalf of the water district to get the money back from those who took it.”
The whistleblower lawsuit claims bribery and fraud drove big moneyed contracts in exchange for exorbitant gifts and trips.
“In a web of corruption reminiscent of the City of Bell scandal, the players in this conspiracy employed kickbacks, bribes and fraud, swapping lucrative contracts that generated over $1 million in fees and salaries in return for campaign contributions, free trips, gifts and NFL tickets,” said Rachel Fiset of Zwieback, Fiset and Colman, attorneys for the whistleblowers.
On the plaintiff side, West Valley Water District’s (WVWD) Board Member Dr. Clifford Young, Chief Financial Officer Naisha Davis and Assistant Board Secretary Patricia Romero filed the lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Fiset said Dr. Young is trying to do the right thing in stepping forward with the charges, as was Naisha Davis when she went before the board to reveal several serious accounting discrepancies.
Along with Davis’s complaint of misappropriations, other things that came to the forefront from the whistleblowers were evidence of bribes, kickbacks, and NFL trips paid for by the lawyers who were getting money for the district to the board.
Once Davis complained of accounting disparities, she was placed on administrative leave at the top of the year, and terminated shortly after.
“She brought it up to the board, saying – hey guys, it seems you are pillaging the District. She was fired after bringing up complaints,” Fiset said.
Left unabated, water district ratepayers would be tasked with picking up the $1.1 million tab.
“This case is being brought to stop the rampant fraud at the District and the misappropriation of public funds,” the suit says.
As yet, she is not aware of any criminal charges filed, but she emphasized that it also doesn’t mean there isn’t a pending investigation. Criminal investigations take time to process, and it’s not unusual for arrests or charges to surface at this stage even if there were criminal investigations – either from the federal or state level.
On the defendant side: The water district’s General Counsel Robert Tafoya, who is also the Baldwin Park City Attorney; Special counsel Clifton Albright and his law firm, Albright Yee & Schmit; Special counsel Martin Kaufman and the Kaufman Law Firm; and consultant Robert Katherman.
Michael Taylor, the former Baldwin Park police chief who serves as president of the West Valley Water District board; General Manager Clarence Mansell; Assistant General Manager and Baldwin Park Councilman Ricardo Pacheco; and water district board member and Fontana school police Officer Kyle Crowther are all named as co-conspirators.
Fiset said law firms typically have insurance to pay the water district back, adding the False Claims Act allows three times of what was taken to be returned. She said the statute works to incentivize people not to be corrupt and make false claims.
Along with statutory fines, she said the money should be returned from the law firm to the district.
When settled, the case could be worth three times the damages, attorney fees, and statutory fines, at about $3.3 million, which is what the district stands to gain, minus the small percentage of what the whistleblowers would receive for damages.
Usually, false claims cases first go to the Attorney General, who makes the determination to prosecute it.
In this case, the threshold matter in that determination is whether state funds were being misappropriated, which took additional time from the filing in February to May when the case was unsealed. All parties must be served, and they were served over the past three weeks.
Fiset said the Attorney General did not take the case; however, it was never indicated that they don’t think the case is criminal, or inactionable.
“They followed the money from the state, and determined that basically the law firms were not paid with California state money — that they were paid with Water District money,” she said.
Fiset said the lawyers were paying certain board members so the board would approve contracts, and get paid big money from the water district “because the water district is rich,” and the individuals are benefiting.
Michael Taylor, current president of the West Valley Water District Board of Directors, is the former Baldwin Park Police Chief, who was hired in 2013 and fired in 2016. Soon after, he was rehired with the help of Baldwin Park City Attorney Robert Tafoya.
In turn, the complaint says, when Taylor first came on board at WVWD, he hired Tafoya as general counsel, who helped him secure a contract that shielded him from termination, except in the case of a felony, and also increase his pension by $25,000.
At the center of allegations against certain board members are bribes and huge perks, including all-expense paid trips and campaign contributions.
According to the suit, Tafoya’s law firm, Tafoya & Garcia LLP, invoiced for $395,000, having paid for certain board members to take pricey trips, eat pricey meals, attend sports events, and trips to Mexico, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Miami.
The suit also alleges that Tafoya made campaign contributions to Taylor and WVWD Board Vice Preside Kyle Crowther and hosted Crowther’s fundraiser at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.
Albright Yee & Schmit APC also invoiced approximately $222,000, and offered to donate $2,000 to a WVWD Board member’s campaign fund in exchange for being hired to handle a new pending litigation against WVWD, as well as contributions to Taylor and Crowther campaigns.
Kaufman Law Firm PC, invoiced and Approved for $97,945.25 for expensive trips, gifts, events for certain board members.
“Robert Katherman paid for gifts and entertainment for Taylor such as bottles of wine valued at $500, boxes of cigars, and expensive meals,” the allegations state. “Contributed to Taylor’s and Crowther’s campaign since being contracted with WVWD.”
Most of all, Fiset said it has been troubling to see district board members Tayor, Crowther, and Olinger vote to have Tafoya indemnified, which is considered a serious conflict of interest against the district who stands to gain from the lawsuit.
Both board members, Greg Young and Clifford Young, no relation, abstained from that vote because they believed it was improper, she said.
The District shouldn’t pay Tafoya’s legal bills as the District would benefit because Tafoya is the one that committed the fraud against the district, she added.
“That, frankly makes no sense. That is out of this world crazy,” she said.