Whistleblowers in Oxnard: Triumph & Tragedy- Part 1

by Kevin Harris
WhistleblowerGraphic

“The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”… James A. Garfield

We live in interesting and, some would say, exciting times. While national politics has taken bizarre, theatrical turns that few could have predicted even a few years ago, in the seaside city of Oxnard, the ongoing struggle for honest, transparent and responsive local government desperately seeks resolution. With the November 8 election fast approaching, and a Mayoral seat, Treasurer, City Clerk and two City Council seats open, candidates looking to fill those vacancies- and voters- would be wise to know at least some of Oxnard’s troubled political history.

One place to start would be a quick glance at a recent memo: No Whistleblower Program sent to Oxnard Council WhistleblowerdefinitionMembers and staff, asking about a previously-proposed “Whistleblower Act” – basically a fraud hotline and an internal auditor. Specifically, the memo asked why Oxnard still has no such law in place, considering that Councilman Bert Perello introduced the Whistleblower Act to Oxnard over a year ago, and was assured it would be implemented.

 

Phil Molina

The memo, sent by Phillip Molina, a former City Finance Director and 2016 City Treasurer candidate for Oxnard, was simple and direct. It reflected the frustration with a city that, by all accounts, has a history of firing people who speak up about corruption and incompetence.

Mr. Molina, as it turns out, has direct experience with Oxnard’s questionable treatment of whistleblowers. While he was City Finance Director, between 1997 and 1999, he discovered that those in power played fast and loose with city funds. “The various department heads of the city had money put into their “Capital Improvement Programs” that had been approved by the City Council. But most of those programs had been completed 8 to 10 years earlier, with money left in them,” he explained.

“Instead of doing what the law required, which is to move that money back into the original money source, the staff decided to keep that money in the Capital Improvement Programs,” Molina said.

MolinaPhil2

Former Oxnhard Finance Director and current Treasurer candidate Phil Molina at recent interview. Photo: Kevin Harris

For those keeping score, the Capital Improvement Programs were now long-completed ones with no reason to remain open. But the city quietly kept them open – 63 different funds with about $8 million stashed away in them.

“When I asked them why they were keeping the Programs open, their response was, ‘if Council doesn’t approve something we want, we can go and use this money because they once approved it,’” Mollina remembered.

When Molina told them that they can’t do that, and that appropriations “are a one year thing,” management told him, “that’s not the way we do it in Oxnard.”

Phil Molina brought the discrepancies to the city council at that time, and in the end, they closed the Capital Improvement Program accounts and returned the $8 million to the city’s general fund. It was a big deal, because the City of Oxnard was completely broke back then – at least in part, due to the Capital Improvement Program withholdings. So this money put Oxnard back in the black.

But as heroic as Molina may have been, and despite the positive results for the citizens of Oxnard, not everyone was pleased with the Finance Director shaking things up. In 1999, the city fired Molina without just cause. Three painstaking federal trials confirmed that fact. It was clear then that Oxnard did not appreciate its whistleblowers.

 

“Being right will not feed your family or pay the mortgage.”… Anonymous

Advertisement

LADolceVitaCookingClassAd

Martin Jones

Martin Jones is a retired real estate agent, longtime Oxnard resident, political activist and current Harbor Commissioner candidate. Over the years, he has regularly attended city council meetings to air his grievances. Even to this day, Jones is the sometimes short-tempered attendee who, when stepping up to the citizens’ podium, gets the rolling eyes of the council members. But it is also Jones who those same council members sends the media to when the perspective of a local hero is needed – the person who has risked so much to fight Oxnard corruption.

JonesMartin2

Whistleblower and civic activist Martin Jones, at recent interview. Photo: Kevin Harris

In 2001, Jones filed a series of official complaints against Oxnard relating to what he called the “misappropriation of public funds,” in a case between the city and High Tide & Green Grass, Inc. – the company that operates River Ridge Golf Course. He filed the complaint with a Civil Grand Jury, and after three investigations were conducted, beginning in 2002, he eventually won.

In short, Jones accused the city, and the Grand Jury agreed, that they routinely failed to report proper financial records, and that public funds were illegally dispersed to the private corporate account of HTGG. These funds were given to the company for two reasons; to pay the three partners an annual salary of $800,000, and to artificially show the golf course to be profitable, when in fact, it never was.

But even after the final ruling by the Civil Grand Jury (which has no power to file criminal charges or to legislate), Jones said, “They changed nothing.” When he presented the Grand Jury’s finding to city management, then Public Works Director, Granville Bowman, told him, “These complaints ruin the city’s reputation,” and no further action was taken.

If Granville Bowman’s name sounds familiar, it may have something to do with a more recent controversy he was involved in – the illegal retirement perk case, where he was a litigant. More on that later.

But Martin Jones wasn’t yet finished with the City of Oxnard. Because, well… The corrupt gotta corrupt, and whistleblowers gotta whistle blow. In 2003, he sued Oxnard for repeatedly violating the “Brown Act,” in relation to the City Council’s handling of the downtown, Oxnard theater building project. “The Brown Act” is a state law passed in 1953 to prevent local government bodies from holding secret meetings in order to avoid public scrutiny and participation.

While Jones was accusing the city of a wide range of questionable practices related to the theater project – everything from large public subsidies in the form of loan guarantees and a free parking structure to eminent domain abuse, his lawsuit focused on secret City Council meetings where such business was discussed in closed-door sessions.

In a bizarre “win” for Jones, Superior Court Judge Vincent J. O’Neill Jr. ruled that the Oxnard City Council did, in fact, repeatedly violate the Brown Act, and ordered the city to start following the law. He did not, however, halt the downtown theater project, or require that future council meetings be recorded – two things Jones had hoped for. Read: Whistleblower Email Notes (1)

Jones calls Oxnard “the most corrupt city of its size in California.” As a longtime whistleblower, he has been routinely ignored at council meetings. But he said the strangest things happened as a result of his activism a couple of years ago. “There were threats by phone. Two death threats and one of castration,” he said. “But no harm ever came to me.”

 

“How do you know that the person at the other end of the hotline is not part of the conspiracy”… Anonymous

 

Illegal Retirement Perks

No historical accounting of Oxnard corruption scandals would be complete without mentioning one of the smaller, though blatant examples: The relatively recent case of illegal retirement perks. Created in 2008, the “Supplemental Post Retirement Benefit” was a $300-a-month retirement perk set up for seven retired city managers, created by former City Manager Ed Sotelo. The problem was, it was created and implemented without the city council’s knowledge. And just like that, it was free money for life for several former city managers.

But current councilman Bert Perello – then Oxnard resident, and political activist Martin Jones noticed the unexplained payments each month and brought it to the public’s attention in 2011. Oxnard then sued the fund’s recipients, and earlier this year, the Ventura County Superior Court ruled in favor of Oxnard. Perello called the ruling a “win for the public.”

PerelloBertInterview

Oxnard Councilman and longtime civic activist Bert Perello at recent interview. Photo: Kevin Harris

SotelloEd

Former City Manager Ed Sotelo. Photo: File

 

.

.

 

 

 

 

.

 

.

 

.

.

Corruption and cronyism in Oxnard didn’t start with the “Capital Improvement Program.” It goes back decades, and includes almost countless examples of local government gone astray. There was the hydrogen sulfide cover-up, which put residents at risk. There was the city paying city employees for their “expenses,” as if they were independent contractors, even while the city was already supplying all the items being paid for. There were the hundreds of thousands of dollars in mysterious city wire transfers, that auditors were never able to explain. There was also the “LBE” (Limited Benefit Employee) scandal, where employees were illegally getting neither pension nor Social Security payments from the City, already resulting in a rather large settlement with the federal government last year.

“Since getting elected, you find out that the people that were at the bottom of the totem pole working for the city, they knew about some of these issues. They reported them to the fourth floor” (Mayor’s office and key staff), said Bert Perello.

Phillip Molina also offered his perspective on how local corruption can happen. “There are so many intelligent, good, honest working City of Oxnard employees. That needs to be understood here,” he said. “The people we’re bringing up to you are the exception. But there are also people who know that things are not right. But they have a wife and children that they have to support. And they can’t come out publicly to identify department heads that they’ve recommended against an area the city is pursuing. And that’s not right,” Mollina added.

Dear Prudence, won’t you open up your eyes?”… John Lennon

But the pool of whistle blowers in Oxnard expands far beyond Bert Perello, Phil Mollina and Martin Jones. There is the pair of high-ranking attorneys, who did many hours of pro-bono work for Martin Jones to file his complaints and lawsuits. There was a former Chief Engineer for the city, who warned of insufficient sewer lines being installed at a then new shopping center off of Rose Avenue – who was later proven correct via large sewage spills, but was fired anyway. And there was a former Oxnard Planning Director who wouldn’t go along with the city’s zoning code violations, and was fired for it – with the city later settling out of court for $50,000. To NOT name just a few.

All of these other whistle blowers refused to be named for fear of reprisal by the city. In some cases they may still be working for the public in other locations or positions, and don’t want to risk their current job. But it all serves to reinforce the idea that Oxnard has had, and at least to some degree, continues to have, a serious need for reform. Specifically, it needs a whistleblower program. 

 Act 2

So now, while Bert Perello and Phillip Mollina wonder why Oxnard still has no local “Whistleblower Act” in place, the fact is, the latest version of a whistleblower act being considered is different than the one being pushed originally. According to City Council memos (read Whisteblower Letter Stephen Fischer from City Attorney to Council) from April, 2016, the current “Whistleblower Act” that they’re struggling to pass has internal auditors, as opposed to independent and/or external auditors – so in essence, whistleblowers would potentially be reporting their observations to the perpetrators they are reporting…

Stay tuned for Part II of this report, where we look at how Oxnard is trying to deal with its whistleblower policy today.

Part II now available: https://citizensjournal.us/oxnard-whistleblowers-part-2/

WhistleblowerProtection

 

Kevin Harris

Kevin Harris


Kevin Harris is a reporter, editor and journalist, and previous President of Cal State Northridge’s Society of Professional Journalists. He is now also a Realtor and videographer, and lives with his two children in Thousand Oaks 

Get Citizensjournal.us Headlines free  SUBSCRIPTION. Keep us publishing – DONATE

*Scroll down to post a comment

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
3 Comments
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dot
Dot
4 years ago

Who were the pro bono attorneyy

William "Bill" Hicks
William "Bill" Hicks
4 years ago

Quite an extensive study. We, as citizens of cities, hire politicians to manage our cities. A reasonable person would ask…..why do we have to constantly observe their activities?

The answer is simple……It is the only way that a representative government can be kept from corruption.

Steven Nash
Steven Nash
4 years ago

Thank you, Mr. Harris for a good introduction into the rotten, systemic dysfunction that characterized Oxnard politics and governance in prior years. Hopefully, we have turned the corner but the price will be, as the saying goes, eternal vigilance on the part of the proud and honorable gadfly contingent.