Then There Were Three: Regional Water Agencies Tainted by Scandal

Spreading pollution.
Spreading pollution | Photo: Coast Guard/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The taint of official corruption has reached the West Basin Municipal Water District, one of the three regional water agencies that serve Los Angeles County. It was inevitable.

West Basin, like its sister agencies, the Water Replenishment District of Southern California and the Central Basin Municipal Water District, is an obscure local government that the media and voters don't much care about.

The districts are in the news mostly after they foul up. Voter turnout in district elections averages about 10 percent. No one knows who the elected board members are.

And with no one watching, it's easy for these little governments to give in to personal and political interests.

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The districts' questionable behavior surfaced in the late 1990s, first in the Water Replenishment District. It was the subject of a scathing report by the Bureau of State Audits on the district's financial practices, which led to an investigation by the state's "good government" Little Hoover Commission.

A similar audit this year disclosed that the Central Basin's board had violated state law in creating a secret, $2.7-million fund to back a water storage project that the district apparently had no right to build. Central Basin is still waiting for the outcome of an FBI probe into the relationships among district officials, indicted state Senator Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), his brother Tom (who was a district consultant), and contractors who worked for the district.

Allegations of influence peddling, conflicts of interest, and mismanagement of public funds continue to dog both these regional water agencies. West Basin has now joined their unhappy club.

According to a statement from the District Attorney's office, West Basin board member (and treasurer) Ronald Smith conspired with Robert Katherman, a board member of the WRD, to embezzle West Basin funds to pay Smith's personal expenses, including tuition fees and the repair of Smith's boat.

Smith was elected to the West Basin board in 2006 and reelected in 2010. He represents a district that includes Carson, Palos Verdes, Rancho Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills Estates, and portions of San Pedro.

The embezzlement scheme apparently involved getting the West Basin board to contribute multiple paid sponsorships over a three-year period to a nonprofit foundation connected to Katherman and his wife Marilyn. The foundation then wrote checks to cover Smith's expenses, the District Attorney's office alleges.

Smith also is suspected of misappropriating funds from the discretionary account provided to each West Basin board member. Including the laundered West Basin money and his own check writing, Smith is alleged to have embezzled about $20,000.

West Basin officials immediately promised an independent forensic audit of the district's sponsorship funding.

Katherman has been charged with one felony count each for misappropriation of public funds and conflict of interest. Martha Katherman, the foundation's treasurer, was charged with the same felony counts. Smith was charged with two counts of misappropriation of public funds, four counts of perjury, and one count of conflict of interest. Each of these is a felony.

To all appearances over the past 20 years, the county's regional water agencies have schooled themselves in the questionable use of public money and in all the quasi-legal ways of benefiting board members and their patrons with cash, contracts, and political favors.

And that pollution extends from district boardrooms to the state capitol.

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