Westlands Water District Relieves Tom Birmingham of General Counsel Duties
Looking for a job? The scandal-ridden Westlands Water District, considered the “Darth Vader” of California water politics by Tribes, fishermen and environmentalists, is hiring a new general counsel.
The announcement came after the Westlands Board of Directors reported stripping Tom Birmingham, now serving as both the district’s general manager and general counsel, of his general counsel duties.
“The Westlands Water District Board of Directors decided to separate the role of General Manager and General Counsel in order to improve the District's decision-making processes and provide an additional layer of review for the District,” Don Peracchi, President of the Westlands Board of Directors said in a statement. “The Legal Affairs Committee of the Board will immediately begin a search to hire a new General Counsel.”
The Board concluded that “the complexities involved in securing water supply, groundwater management, and other challenges facing the District require the full attention of the General Manager.”
The new General Counsel will have the responsibility of providing legal advice on proposed changes to existing policies, new policies, personnel matters, and any other matters requested by the Board, according to Peracchi.
“The Board believes the new organizational structure will promote more transparency and good government practices, and represents the beginning of a process to improve the decision-making and operations of the District.” he explained.
Westlands has been embroiled in a numbers of scandals in recent months. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on March 10 charged Westlands, California’s largest agricultural water district, with “misleading investors” about its financial condition as it issued a $77 million bond offering.
In addition to charging the district, the SEC also charged Birmingham and former assistant general manager Louie David Ciapponi with misleading investors about its financial condition.
“Birmingham jokingly referred to these transactions as ‘a little Enron accounting’ when describing them to the board of directors, which is comprised of Westlands customers,” the SEC reported.
Westlands agreed to pay $125,000 to settle the charges, making it only the second municipal issuer to pay a financial penalty in an SEC enforcement action.
Birmingham agreed to pay a penalty of $50,000 and Ciapponi agreed to pay a penalty of $20,000 to settle the charges against them.
And then this month, the Associated Press reported that Westlands loaned $1.4 million at 0.84% interest to Jason Peltier, the district’s former deputy general manager, to buy a riverfront home on the Sacramento River. Nine years later, Peltier’s loan is still unpaid. (http://www.businessinsider.com/ap-ap-exclusive-water-giant-gave-14m-loan-to-official-2016-6)
On December 31, 2005, the New York Times revealed that Westlands had dumped over $1.1 million into a classic Astrourf group, El Agua Es Asunto de Todos— Water Is Everybody’s Business. The group purports to represent the “Latino” voice while promoting the diversion of more Delta water for corporate agribusiness interests on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. (www.nytimes.com/...)
Westlands is one of main backers of the Governor Jerry Brown’s Delta Tunnels Plan, dubbed the “California WaterFix,” a project that will hasten the extinction of Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt and other fish species.
The water district is also one of the main recipients of water from the Trinity River, the largest tributary of the Klamath River, via the Central Valley Project’s Trinity and Whiskeytown reservoirs. Westlands has frequently clashed in court with the Hoopa Valley, Yurok and Karuk Tribes and fishing groups over its attempts to block river flows needed to stop fish kills on the Klamath in recent years.
Westlands played a role in the fish kill of September 2002, when over 68,000 adult salmon perished in the lower Klamath on the Yurok Indian Reservation in the largest fish kill of its kind in U.S. history. A lawsuit filed by Westlands and other agencies blocked the needed release of cold water down the river at a time when it was needed to alleviate the impacts of the fishery disaster.
The capture of the regulatory apparatus in California by Westlands and other corporate agribusiness interests was exemplified by the Department of WAter Resources’ hiring of Susan Ramos "on loan" from the Westlands Water District to serve as "a liaison between all relevant parties" surrounding the Delta Habitat Conservation and Conveyance Program (DHCCP) and provide "technical and strategic assistance" to DWR. (www.indybay.org/...)
Documents obtained by this reporter under the California Public Records Act revealed that Ramos, the Deputy General Manager of Westlands at the time, was hired in an "inter-jurisdictional personal exchange agreement" between the Department of Water Resources and Westlands from November 15, 2009 through December 31, 2010. The contract was extended to run through December 31, 2011 and again to continue through December 31, 2012.
Westlands and other corporate agribusiness, much like the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) and Big Oil, have captured state and federal regulators to promote their anti-environmental agenda, exposing California’s reputation as the nation’s “green leader” to be nothing more than a big, unfounded myth.