A lawsuit has been filed alleging many misdeeds by current and past leaders of the City of Baldwin Park and several persons affiliated with the West Valley Water District in Rialto, including a Fontana Unified School District Police Department officer.
“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. “Our clients are shining the light on this conspiracy to hold those involved accountable to the public.”
The whistleblower lawsuit unsealed in Los Angeles County Superior Court was filed by West Valley Water District’s (WVWD) Board Member Dr. Clifford Young, Chief Financial Officer Naisha Davis, and Assistant Board Secretary Patricia Romero.
The lawsuit names as defendants WVWD’s General Counsel Robert Tafoya, who serves as the city attorney in Baldwin Park, and his law firm, Tafoya and Garcia; WVWD Special Counsel Clifton Albright and his law firm, Albright Yee and Schmit; WVWD Special Counsel Martin Kaufman, and his law firm Kaufman Law Firm; and WVWD consultant Robert Katherman.
Co-conspirators named in the case include Michael Taylor, president of the WVWD Board of Directors and the former Baldwin Park police chief; current Baldwin Park City Councilman Ricardo Pacheco, who acts as WVWD’s assistant general manager; WVWD Board Vice President and Fontana officer Kyle Crowther; and WVWD General Manager Clarence Mansell.
According to the lawsuit, after a recent closed session meeting, Taylor announced that WVWD will grant Tafoya’s request to have the District pay Tafoya and his law firm’s legal fees to defend against the whistleblower litigation.
"This action alone creates a severe conflict of interest between the District’s ratepayers and Tafoya as the lawsuit seeks money to repay the District for the alleged fraudulent payments made to Tafoya," the lawsuit said.
As alleged in the lawsuit, Taylor was chief of the Baldwin Park Police Department from 2013 to 2016 when he was terminated by the City Council. He was subsequently re-hired to a one-year term in December 2017. His contract, drafted by Tafoya, raised Taylor’s pension by $25,000, barred him from being fired unless he committed a felony, and freed him from being subject to performance evaluations.
According to the lawsuit:
Six days after Taylor was reinstated as police chief under the deal Tafoya drafted, his first act as a newly elected member of the WVWD Board of Directors was to successfully move to hire Tafoya as the district’s general counsel on a contract with no end date. The firm has billed WVWD approximately $395,000 since being hired in December 2018.
Less than four months later, Baldwin Park City Councilman Pacheco, who had voted for Taylor’s reinstatement as police chief, was hired by WVWD as the “assistant general manager of external affairs.” He was later moved without Board approval to the newly created position of “assistant general manager,” receiving a salary of $192,000 per year.
Since his hiring, Pacheco and the California Education Coalition PAC he controls have donated a total of $8,000 to Taylor’s campaign and $1,000 to Crowther’s campaign.
In 2018, Taylor spearheaded the effort to hire his associate Mansell as WVWD’s interim general manager and subsequently as the permanent general manager, at an annual salary of $225,000. Mansell was hired by a 3-2 Board vote without a recruitment effort, background checks, or other standard hiring reviews, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit said that in 2017 and 2018, Tafoya paid for Taylor to travel and stay in Mexico and Las Vegas, trips that Taylor did not disclose on required economic disclosure forms as an elected official. The lawsuit claimed that in September 2018, Tafoya paid for Taylor, Crowther and Young to attend an Arizona Cardinals football game in Arizona. Tafoya paid for airfare, hotels, game tickets and meals on the trip, and Taylor and Crowther did not disclose the trip on required filings, the lawsuit said.
Tafoya paid for Crowther’s airfare to Miami and for football tickets to Miami Dolphins football games on at least two occasions in 2018, and Crowther did not disclose the tickets or airfare on required filings, the lawsuit claimed.
Tafoya contributed $500 to Taylor’s campaign and $1,500 to Crowther’s PAC (Kyle Nelson Crowther for West Valley Water District 2017), and he hosted an August 2018 fundraiser at the Los Angeles Athletic Club for Crowther.
The lawsuit said that in September 2018, Tafoya told WVWD Director Young that Albright of Albright, Yee and Schmit should be hired to handle new litigation against WVWD, and, in exchange, Albright would donate $2,000 to Young’s campaign. Although Young declined, the District ultimately engaged Albright, whose firm had worked for the City of Baldwin Park. Albright made $1,000 in campaign contributions to both Taylor and Crowther. His firm has invoiced WVWD about $222,000 for its services.
At Tafoya’s request, WVWD’s Board hired Kaufman and the Kaufman Law Firm of Ontario as special counsel to the district in March 2018. The lawsuit said that Kaufman regularly provided some Board members and Tafoya with trips, event tickets and expensive meals and gifts, and paid for Taylor, Tafoya and Crowther to attend the Los Angeles Rams vs. Los Angeles Chargers football game in 2018. Kaufman contributed $2,500 to Taylor’s campaign after his firm’s contract was approved. The firm has invoiced at least $97,945 to WVWD since March 2018.
In February 2018, Katherman began consulting for WVWD on water issues without a contract or Board approval, the lawsuit said. Katherman paid for gifts and entertainment for Taylor, including bottles of wine valued at $500, boxes of cigars, and meals which Taylor did not disclose on required forms, the lawsuit said. Katherman has contributed $500 each to Taylor’s and Crowther’s campaigns since being hired, and WVWD has paid him at least $40,000, the lawsuit said.
“A pattern of illegal kickbacks in the form of free travel, expensive meals, campaign contributions, entertainment and gifts shows how these defendants and their co-conspirators acted unlawfully to enrich themselves at the public’s expense,” Fiset said. “Our clients’ goal is to bring this rampant fraud, misappropriation of public funds and violation of the public’s trust to an end.”