Hardy Brown Sr. & S.E. Williams | Contributors
For more than a year The IE Voice/Black Voice News has chronicled in op-eds and feature stories the antics and alleged fiscal malfeasance West Valley Water District Board Director Dr. Clifford O. Young.
After failed efforts to solicit meaningful responses from the West Valley Water District Board (Board) of Directors to concerns raised by members of the West Valley Water District (WVWD) Rate Payers Association (RPA), regarding what they saw as potential misuse of rate payer funds the organization took their concerns to the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).
As previously reported, in a letter dated September 10, 2018, RPA President Don Griggs presented their concerns to the FPPC documenting how WVWD Board of Directors and its President Clifford Young used ratepayers’ money for personal political purposes in relation to an event that occurred in December 2017.
In a sworn statement, Griggs, on behalf of the Association, presented the (FPPC) with a very detailed report which laid out a compelling case in support of their claim that Young had misused rate payer funds and provided copies of key WVWD documents to support their allegations.
The basis of their claim was rooted in an event that occurred on December 7, 2017. Although described by Young as a Christmas celebration the RPA alleged the event was actually a political victory celebration for Young (who was re-elected to the Board) and for newly elected Board Directors, Dr. Michael Taylor and Kyle Crowther. RPA believed Young had violated FPPC regulations when he requested and was reimbursed for the cost of the event which totaled $1897.43.
After considering the allegations, Galena West, FPPC Enforcement Division Chief responded to the RPA complaint in late September 2018 noting the FPPC found insufficient evidence of a violation of the Political Reform Act and as a result, would not be pursuing the case from an FPPC perspective. However, she added, “The conduct alleged in your complaint would be better addressed by the Office of the Attorney General. Therefore, we have forwarded your complaint to the Attorney General’s Office.”
In a separate matter in mid-October 2018, the Public Integrity Unit (PIU) of the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office provided a written assessment to WVWD attorney, Bradley Neufeld, Esq. Varner & Brandt, LLP, regarding two complaints against Young. The complaints involved Young’s receipt of reimbursement from WVWD in the amount of $1378.58 for travel expenses for a business trip to Washington, DC in 2016 that was ultimately cancelled; and a reimbursement in the amount of $538.41 for fees on his personal Linkedin account for 2016.
In the communication, PIU Deputy District Attorney Carlo A. Dicesare reported—based on the department’s investigation which included previous communications with Neufeld—it was their understanding that, “[Young] without admitting any liability, acknowledged the payments in question were inappropriate.
Dicesare further noted the PIU took at “face value” the lawyer’s representations that the payments were—inadvertent. And, acknowledged Dicesare had also provided proof the money was repaid. The PIU declared the matter closed; but the correspondence did not end there.
Dicesare was provided the following caution, [I]n looking at the totality of the allegations in the complaints [against Young in this case], it appears that there may be issues with the WVWD’s internal controls.”
He continued, “We alert you to that, and request that you remind your client and WVWD staff, of their obligations to scrupulously safeguard public funds.” Adding, “As the California Supreme Court noted more than 90 years ago, “The safekeeping of pubic moneys has, from the first, been safeguarded and hedged in by legislation most strict and severe in its exactitudes. It has continuously been the policy of the law that the custodians of public moneys or funds should hold and keep them inviolate and use or disburse them only in strict compliance with the law.”
“The safekeeping of pubic moneys has, from the first, been safeguarded and hedged in by legislation most strict and severe in its exactitudes. It has continuously been the policy of the law that the custodians of public moneys or funds should hold and keep them inviolate and use or disburse them only in strict compliance with the law.”
– California Supreme Court, People v. Dillion (1926)
By the time Young’s attorney received that guidance to pass on to his client however, Young was already (once again) under investigation for purportedly violating that guiding principle in another matter—triggered by the RPA’s FPPC complaint.
In mid-September 2018 the WVWD engaged the law firm Milon Pluas LLP (Pluas) to conduct an investigation into allegations involving Young and the District in response to the RPA’s FPPC complaint.
“We insisted the internal investigation be conducted by an outside firm,” Griggs explained, “to eliminate any concerns about the integrity of its results.”
The investigation, which began February 14, 2019 and completed March 6, 2019, concluded the allegations made against Dr. Clifford Young Sr. and the West Valley Water District are substantiated. Pluas based its conclusions on following:
The December 7, 2017 party at Serra Lakes Golf Course constituted a private, political event for which reimbursement was improper.
It is unlawful for any elected state or local officer to use public resources for campaign activity which includes expenditures made by a candidate or officeholder unless it is clear from the surrounding circumstances that the expenditure was not made for political purposes. In other words, there is a presumption that expenses made by public officials are made for political purposes and as such, must be clearly rebutted by the circumstances. According to Pluas, this case proved the contrary—there was overwhelming evidence the event was held for personal political purposes.
Young, Crowther and Taylor were sworn in during the December 7, 2017 Board meeting. The event in question was held immediately following the meeting. Based on testimony of many who attended the affair at the Sierra Lakes Golf Club the evening of December 7, 2017, including staff and other evidence, investigators determined the event was specifically organized by Young and Taylor as a way for the newly-elected board directors to celebrate their election victories.
The facts led to the further conclusion the event was a private affair only for individuals involved in their political campaign. It included donors, elected officials, family members and others who were in one way or another connected to the campaigns and it was not intended for the pubic or the district at large.
Young’s request and receipt of an improper expense reimbursement is an impermissible use of public funds.
It is illegal for elected government officials and employees to use public resources for personal or political purposes and reimbursement of such money is deemed to be an illegal “gift.” According to investigators such gifts resulting from improper reimbursement(s) are a violation of the California Constitution.
An email invitation to the event from Young’s political campaign, “Young for Waterboard,” dated December 4, 2017 sent to those who attended the event directly stated the purpose of the affair was to thank the recipients for the work they provided in the campaign and to celebrate a “job well done.” This further supported the finding that the event was exclusively held for those associated with the campaign; however, the paperwork submitted to WVWD by Young for reimbursement referenced it as a Christmas party. However, none of the attendees interviewed during the investigation understood it to be a Christmas party. In addition, no members of the general public were in attendance and there was no evidence of a public announcement or invitation to the general public.
Based on these and other factors, investigators determined the event was political in nature intended to celebrate the election of the Board members and thank those involved in the campaigns. They further determined Young improperly sought and received reimbursement for its costs and noted the reimbursement was an illegal use of public resources in violation of WVWD District Ordinance 85 and the California Constitution.
Young was improperly reimbursed for cost incurred for his spouse, other directors’ spouses and third parties unrelated to the WVWD who attended the event.
Whether the December 7, 2017 event was private or public, reimbursement for meals consumed by spouses and other third parties is likely improper, investigators reported. According to the California Attorney General public funds cannot be used to reimburse elected officials who purchase meals for their spouses or other third parties including constituents, legislators, private business owners, etc. This determination is also reflected in WVWD’s Ordinance 85 which states in part,” [E]ach Director shall reimburse the District for any prepayment of costs for his/her spouse except as otherwise stated in this ordinance.”
Investigators concluded the majority of the meals served at the December 7, 2017 event and paid for through the reimbursement of public funds were for spouses and third party individuals who attended—a direct violation of Ordinance 85 and other state regulations.
The District improperly paid for Young’s reimbursement.
The investigators determined that based on the details describe above and other factors included in the investigative report the district knew or should have known Young’s request for reimbursement for the event was improper and should not have been paid.
Among the many other factors highlighting Young’s hubris and disregard for the rules revealed during the investigation was evidenced in an exchange that occurred at the close of the event. Taylor and Crowther told investigators they approached Young and offered to share the costs—specifically informing him they could cover the costs of the event with money left over from their political action committees (PACS), i.e., campaign funds. However, Young declined their offers and indicated he would pay the bill himself to treat the two new Board members because unlike Young, they were just elected to the Board for the first time. Both Crowther and Taylor told investigators they understood the event was not “District related” and as a result, could not be reimbursed through the water agency.
During the investigation several individuals involved in the event were interviewed including Deborah Martinez, Clarence Mansell, Donald Olinger, Kyle Crowther, Michael Taylor, Greg Young, Guillermo Villavicencio and Scott Olson. Clifford Young and the former assistant board secretary Patricia Romero declined to be interviewed and the former WVWD Chief Financial Officer Robert Christmas is now deceased.
Although those who processed the reimbursement, Martinez and Christmas, could not be interviewed, Pluas determined District documents were enough to establish conclusively the reimbursement was requested and made—further noting, “[Based on their investigation] this is not in dispute.”
On April 26, 2019 WVWD General Manager Clarence Mansell submitted a copy of the investigator’s report to the Public Integrity Unit of the San Bernardino District Attorney’s office and requested the unit review it and determine an appropriate course of action(s).
When the FPPC advised Griggs in September 2018 the RPA FPPC complaint was being referred to the Attorney General, he told The IE Voice/Black Voice News during an exclusive interview, “We have laid out our case and we will continue to pursue the issue.” And, they did.
“The results of the [investigation] came back, and our claim was substantiated,” Griggs declared in a recent interview. “In other words, everything we said proved to be true.” Although upon learning the results of the investigation Griggs admitted he had some concerns. His thoughts were in reference to the previous case referred to the DA over Young’s reimbursement for expenses related to the cancelled trip to Washington, D.C. and 2016 fees on his personal Linkedin account as detailed above.
“For the DA to have dismissed that complaint because Young claimed his reimbursement filings with [WVWD] were inadvertent and because he repaid the money,” Griggs said adamantly, “did not sit well with me. It means if I get caught doing something wrong, whether its stealing or something else, and I pay it back—then all is forgiven. In the real world it doesn’t work that way.”
He continued, That was a big concern for me coming from the DA’s office.” He acknowledged the DA’s decision in part, is what encouraged the RPA to continue. Noting further the DA’s decision “was not good enough.”
The investigation into the December 7, 2017 event and its results are a credit to the diligence and determination of Griggs and other members of the RPA who continue to stay the course working to ensure ratepayers have a voice in the administration of the District while also holding Board members to account for their actions.
Now, the RPA is waiting to see the results of the DA’s investigation. “Of course, we have a new District Attorney [Jason Anderson], Ramos was the DA when the other case was forgiven. We wanted to make sure this investigation went as planned; we had all the information; and we were sure that anyone who pursued it would find the charges were true.” That’s what happened in the internal investigation and Griggs is hopeful the same will be true regarding the DA investigation.
“The WVWD deserves Directors it can trust,” Griggs stressed. “It’s time for Young to move on.” Though he acknowledged Young will probably not leave voluntarily. “The question is,” he added, will the DA’s investigation result in charges?
He went on to express his hope the DA has the integrity to do the right thing for the District Attorney’s Office and the WVWD. “Let’s make things right,” he encouraged, “and let’s move on.”
The IE Voice/Black Voice News reached out to attorney Robert Tafoya for a comment from Clifford Young. As of publication there was no response.