Water Pollution: FBI Looks for Corruption in the Central Basin

It's hard for even committed observers to make sense of the many special districts that manage the water flowing to our taps. The water supplier everyone knows is the Metropolitan Water District, a consortium of 26 cities and other water districts that imports water for nearly 17 million people in southern California. If you live in Los Angeles, the big supplier is the city's Department of Water and Power.

But there are other, more obscure water agencies in Los Angeles County. Their boards are elected by the residents who live in the district, although voters have never shown much interest in who their board members are. They're invisible until corruption begins to seep out.

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It used to be that the water districts were run by water industry old-timers, but then the untapped potential for pay, patronage, and perks, like some natural resource, was discovered in them.

There is widespread suspicion that these boards have become perches for termed-out legislators seeking light work after Sacramento and for the junior members of political families waiting their turn to take higher office. The prizes may be small, but to wield power in one of the county's water districts has its compensations.

Aside from the pay and perks, there are contracts to be let to political friends and jobseekers to be patronized and squabbles with other water agencies to be fought.

There is good evidence that some board members and their allies in the state legislature, seeing the money in water, have ambitions to get the money and spend it for political purposes. As a result, some districts have been audited by the state legislature for their odd spending practices. Some of their more questionable activities have been restrained by court order.

The Central Basin Municipal Water District is a particularly instructive example of what happened when water matters were polluted by a compliant district board for the benefit of the politically well connected.

Confusingly, the Central Basin doesn't deliver water to anyone. That's the responsibility of cities, private water companies, and other water purveyors. The Central Basin oversees the condition of the aquifer under a large part of Los Angeles County and charges water purveyors -- not consumers -- for the service.

Passing costs through water purveyors gives the Central Basin insulation when board members hike rates, spend unwisely, or climb into bed with powerful legislators.

Central Basin has been criticized over the years for all sorts of oddities. The Los Angeles Times wondered why Central Basin gave at least $70,000 to a phony news service to plant stories about the district's good works. There's also the district's $22.6-million reclaimed water system that had only two customers and very little rationale, since Central Basin is supposed to be a water bookkeeper not a water supplier.

And now the FBI is looking into the Central Basin as part of a wider investigation of state Senator Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), whose ties to the Central Basin board pass through his brother Tom, a former state legislator. (Their nephew Ian is currently a state Assemblyman. His father -- the third Calderon brother -- is a former member of the legislature.)

Ron Calderon authored legislation that would have greatly expanded Central Basin's powers. Tom Calderon had a $12,000-a-month contract with the district, which had paid him more than $750,000 in consulting fees between 2004 and 2011.

With money like that sloshing around, it's not surprising that Ron and Tom Calderon donated more than $36,000 to water district board candidates over a five-year period, according to the state's Fair Political Practices Commission.

The FBI also is interested in the activities of George Cole, the former mayor of Bell recently convicted in the that city's political scandals, and Cole's Oldtimers Foundation. Cole's foundation received more than $2.5 million in Central Basin contracts.

As the Times has noted, Cole served on the Central Basin's board of directors from 2003-2007. And Tom Calderon has served as the Oldtimers' board president, as well as being a board member of Water2Save, a water conservation consultancy that had been paying $140,000 a year for Tom's legislative advice.

Earlier in the year, FBI agents interviewed a disappointed contractor whose agreement with the Central Basin to manage conservation programs was mysteriously withdrawn in favor of Water2Save. Agents also talked to two Commerce city council members who went through recall elections apparently financed largely by the Calderons.

Last week for undisclosed reasons, the FBI widened its investigation to include Gil Cedillo Jr., Central Basin's business development manager and son of former legislator and now Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo.

And there's likely to be more water pollution ahead. Dan Morain, writing in the Merced Sun-Star, reported that Tom Calderon received $157,000 in consulting fees from his brother Ron and that Tom has begun fundraising to run for his brother's senate seat when Ron is termed out in 2014.

Ron is raising money to run for an Assembly seat. His brother Charles is planing to run for Secretary of State.

The Calderons are a part of the game of musical chairs in Sacramento that makes an obscure water district vulnerable to manipulation and so very desirable for extracting pay, patronage, and perks from the inexhaustible ignorance of voters and ratepayers.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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