Westlands Board Strips Tom Birmingham of General Counsel Duties

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Are you 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 of his general counsel duties. Birmingham has served as both the district’s general manager and general counsel.

“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,” said Don Peracchi, President of the Westlands Board of Directors, 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.

Delta advocates expressed dismay that the Westlands Board hadn’t outright dismissed Birmingham, especially in light of the recent financial scandals that have plagued the water district.

“Westlands Water District is rearranging chairs on the Titanic,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta (RTD). “In a normal functioning public agency such leadership would be dismissed.”

Westlands has been embroiled in a numbers of scandals over the past several 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 in June, 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. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/31/us/farmers-try-political-force-to-twist-open-californias-taps.html)

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, green sturgeon 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 key 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.

More recently, the Hoopa Valley Tribe on May 24 filed its objection to two bills proposed in the House of Representatives to implement the controversial San Luis Settlement Agreement between the federal government and Westlands and other water agencies, saying the agreement would “forever condemn the Tribe to poverty.”

The Tribe filed its complaint prior to a hearing on the two bills, H.R. 4366 (Rep. David Valadao) and H.R. 5217 (Rep. Jim Costa, D-CA), held by the U.S. House of Representative Natural Resources Committee Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans.

Ryan Jackson, Hoopa Tribal Chairman, said the Settlement Agreement contains Central Valley Project (CVP) water supply assurances for 895,000 acre feet of water for the Westlands Water District that originate from the Trinity River, a watershed that the Tribe “has depended for its fishery, economy and culture since time immemorial.”

“It is a travesty that the pristine waters of the Trinity Alps that have nurtured our people have been diverted from their natural course, sent 400 miles from our homeland and converted into toxic industrial waste by agribusiness in the Central Valley,” said Michael Orcutt, Hoopa Tribal Fisheries Director. (https://intercontinentalcry.org/hoopa-valley-tribe-san-luis-settlement-agreement-will-condemn-tribe-poverty/)

The capture of the regulatory apparatus in California and the U.S. 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.

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. (https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2011/12/14/18702762.php)

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.