For the first time, Madera County has a Political Corruption Unit designated specifically to investigate and prosecute corruption within all of the county’s government agencies, and a questionable move by the Board of Supervisors is its first target.
District Attorney David Linn announced the formation of the unit Sept. 22. He said it will be headed by former U.S. Army Captain Paul Hornick, who was recently recruited as a deputy district attorney.
Linn’s announcement quickly followed a Board of Supervisors meeting where two items pulled from the consent calendar for discussion drew criticism, both from elected officials and the public towards what were viewed as murky, possibly illegal practices.
In item W of the Sept. 22 meeting, available on the agenda by visiting http://goo.gl/qyY4tp, Auditor-Controller Todd Miller said in public comment it appeared the board’s transfer of $18,000 from the county general fund, to be used by Maintenance District 95 in the Madera Ranchos, was illegal.
“We are providing taxpayer money for the benefit of a private group,” Miller said of how the $18,000, provided without any repayment to the county, will be used for an engineer’s assessment to determine the district’s needed water rates.
Chief Administrative Officer Eric Fleming said that the county “subvents,” or grants, as much as a total $300,000 to $400,000 a year to its more than 100 special districts.
“We want to do this systematically so we can stop subventing special districts with general fund dollars,” Fleming said. “You’re not allowed to use public funds to benefit private individuals. But there’s a problem in the law, because the state says to the county, you’re responsible to take care that those people have water.”
Supervisor Brett Frazier, from District 1, and Fleming then said the engineer assessment was likely part of a legal settlement with MD95, but Miller wasn’t convinced.
“I believe it’s part of the settlement and fairly easy to see it’s not a gift of public funds, we’re meeting requirements,” Frazier said.
“If you wanted to make this an advance or a loan, I’d have different thoughts,” Miller said. “But this still appears to be a gift of public funds without any repayment.”
Miller and Linn requested county counsel send them a letter explaining the $18,000 transfer, which they received a week after the meeting. As the county’s elected auditor-controller, Miller is responsible for review on all county bills and can choose to reject the transferred funds.
In the letter, Scott Cross, an attorney with Fresno-based Lozano Smith which represents Madera County Counsel, explained the money was being used for a “valid public purpose” and cited legal cases to reinforce the transfer’s legality.
“Our position is this wasn’t illegal,” Cross said later in a phone interview. “We provided a memo setting forth the applicable law on the matter, and that there’s a valid public purpose for the transfer. It helps to establish legal water rates that are collected by the county.”
Linn and Miller both questioned why the county didn’t follow the routine of utilizing Proposition 218 in order to have MD95 residents vote on raising their rates to pay for the assessment.
Johannes Hoevertsz, Madera County Public Works Director, said Proposition 218 can’t be used until the engineer’s assessment is completed to understand how much MD95’s rates need to be raised.
“The report has to be done before Prop. 218,” Hoevertsz said. “It’s not uncommon for the board to do a transfer like this.”
Linn remained skeptical. He said both he and Hornick are researching the cases provided in the counsel’s letter.
“The letter gives me a little clarity as to why they did it, but it doesn’t answer the question if it was legal,” Linn said.
Cross and Hoevertsz noted a legal settlement with MD95 likely wasn’t related to the $18,000 transfer.
Linn added he felt a more than $31,000 pay raise for Fleming, approved unanimously by the board at the same meeting, was another troublesome area but it wasn’t illegal.
“It troubles me very deeply that the board is disregarding the needs of other people in the county to give Mr. Fleming a significant raise,” Linn said. “I didn’t form this unit because of what happened (at the meeting). But what happened reaffirmed in my mind this was the right thing to do.”
Supervisors said they needed to raise Fleming’s pay - from $182,715 to $214,332 - as he was being “headhunted” by Fresno County due to helping guide Madera County out of a $12.3 million deficit in 2009 to a current $4 million surplus, and other proficiencies in financial work.
Hornick previously served on the Judge Advocate General Corps, and worked as an adjutant in the U.S. Army, with the Department of Homeland Security, Bureau of Immigration, U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Secret Service, and the office of the State Attorney.
Linn said he was “proud to have an attorney of Captain Hornick’s quality” to serve as head of the Political Corruption Unit.