Water district beset by bitter power struggles and criminal charges against general manager

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For years, the Central Basin Municipal Water District has been seen as a showcase for government dysfunction: state auditors criticized the agency for questionable contracting practices, poor leadership, and breaking the law. Competing lawsuits accused officials of corruption and intimidation, while the district’s bond rating plummeted.

When some California lawmakers attempted to dissolve the district’s board of directors and place it in receivership in 2020, the trade-based water wholesaler hired a self-described “turnaround specialist” to reform the district, which serves nearly 2 million residents in the Southeast. serves. Los Angeles. The beleaguered neighborhood was finally entering a new era, some hoped.

But those hopes have now faded as the district finds itself in yet another major scandal.

General Manager Alejandro “Alex” Rojas – the man charged with rehabilitating the district – is now charged with money laundering, solicitation of bribes and embezzlement of grand theft. The charges, which were filed in August, stem from his days as superintendent of La Puente’s Bassett Unified School District from 2014-17, not his work in the district.

Rojas has denied any allegations.

The allegations have led to bitter infighting among board members and complicated decision-making at one of Southern California’s largest water wholesalers. Some residents are concerned about the allegations against Rojas and other officials.

“There is a ubiquitous culture in Southeastern LA politics where, in my opinion, profit-driven people and those with special interests benefit; they see these cities and these agencies as a way to help their businesses and serve themselves,” he said Juan Muñoz-Guevara, 25, of Lynwood.

“In some of these Southeast cities, people are working paycheck to paycheck, just trying to make ends meet, and with these smaller agencies, you trust that the people who are chosen for them will do well and run the agency well ,” he said. “And these people understand that and use that.”

At a recent board meeting, allegations of lying, mismanagement and alleged crimes flew as two members expressed concern that Rojas would remain in office despite being accused of corruption.

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Board members Leticia Vasquez and Martha Camacho-Rodriguez criticized Rojas and other board members, saying the water district lacked adequate financial control or transparency, and said they feared public money could be jeopardized.

“I’m concerned that Alex Rojas also serves as the main person for the district’s finances, the treasurer. He shouldn’t act as general manager and treasurer,” Vasquez said. She called for Rojas to be placed on administrative leave.

Camacho-Rodriguez called for a forensic audit of the district’s finances.

“I can’t believe there’s anything clean on our desk right now, not when he’s been managing our books for two years,” Camacho-Rodriguez said.

Rojas, who has a doctorate in education from USC, insisted that the agency’s management and finances are in order and proper procedures are followed. He also said that improvements in the district’s bond ratings have “saved taxpayers a lot of money” during his tenure.

Prosecutors allege that in 2015 and 2016 — when Rojas was Bassett Unified’s superintendent — Rojas plotted to divert more than $1.4 million in government money by approving invoices for work that was never done. He was charged along with Luis Rojas, the CEO of Del Terra, a company hired to oversee construction projects for the school district. The two men are not related.

“Illegal diversion of voter-approved bond money from schools not only robs our children of already scarce resources, but also diminishes public trust in and support for our educational institutions,” Los Angeles County Dist. Attention. George Gascón said in announcing the charges.

The pair will be arraigned on March 15.

News of the corruption allegations alarmed Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), who co-authored the bill that would have placed the district in receivership more than 10 years ago.

“I am deeply concerned about the allegations facing Central Basin’s general manager,” he said in a statement. “This is just the latest in a long line of issues facing the Central Basin Water District that threaten their credibility. We need to be confident that our local water agencies have community interests at heart.”

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In an email to The Times, Craig Missakian, Alex Rojas’ attorney, said his client was “caught in the crossfire” of a 2018 investigative report written by the school district’s general counsel, Francisco Leal, targeting Luis Rojas. and company, adding: “There is nothing to substantiate the allegations.” He said the baseless allegations are a “political hit piece masquerading as a criminal complaint”.

In an email, Luis Rojas called the prosecutor’s case “frivolous” and claimed Leal’s complaint was based on “rumors and speculation.”

“If the prosecution had done its own homework – instead of just taking Mr Leal at his word – they would have seen the allegations are baseless,” Luis Rojas said in the email Missakian sent to The Times. He pointed out that a judge in a related civil case against his company has reviewed and dismissed the allegations of fraud, saying he is “confident that the same will happen in the criminal case.”

Missakian said Alex Rojas “adamantly denies the central allegation in the criminal case – that he participated in a pay-to-play arrangement with a contractor … and looks forward to clearing his name.”

Missakian said that because the case has not affected the work he does for the district in any way, Rojas “sees no reason to resign pending the outcome of his case, which he believes will ultimately be decided in his favor.” ” Two credit rating agencies “assessed the district’s operations and finances and declared it sound,” the attorney said.

At least one activist remains concerned.

“Why is he still operating as Central Basin’s GM while he’s indicted?” said Charming Evelyn, chair of the water committee for the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. “This is very unusual and it should be removed.”

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Some of the fiercest criticism of Rojas has come from Vasquez, who is no stranger to political clashes. In 2007, Vasquez — along with other Lynwood City Council members and then-mayor Louis Byrd — was voted out in a recall after years of investigation, corruption allegations, and an NFL stadium proposal.

Even before Rojas was charged, Vasquez sued the water district, claiming that Rojas, general counsel Robert Baker, board chairman Arturo Chacon, and then-board member Robert Apodaca violated her civil rights.

The complaint says that because Vasquez is a “whistleblower who publicly exposed a multitude of misconduct and corruption in the Central Basin, these men conspired to prevent her from speaking publicly and otherwise engaging in illegal, improper, unreasonable, immoral and unethical activities.” to announce.”

In an email, Baker said Central Basin “will defend this cause and is confident that we will prevail.”

Chacon declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Vasquez alleges, among other things, that Rojas and others bullied her, devised a plan to cut her pay, deactivated her official email account, and falsely censored her. She said there have been other incidents of harassment as well.

In the lawsuit, Vasquez alleged a “physical attack” by fellow board member Apodaca during a meeting in 2020. In video of the incident, Apodaca is seen standing out of his chair and grabbing and pulling Vasquez’s arm as he reached for the gavel .

Apodaca could not be reached by phone or email, but the district has denied all of Vasquez’s allegations in court documents.

Missakian called the lawsuit and claims of rights violations frivolous.

“No one, least of all Dr. Rojas, has stopped Ms. Vasquez from speaking her mind, as her numerous public statements — at board meetings, by email, on YouTube and otherwise — clearly demonstrate,” Missakian said.

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