April 14, 2011 4:11 PM
Brooke Edwards

VICTORVILLE • The city has asked the Fair Political Practices Commission for advice in a possible conflict of interest claim involving Mayor Pro Tem Rudy Cabriales and his connection to the High Desert Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Cabriales has voted in favor of a number of city contracts with companies that have made donations to the Hispanic Chamber. His wife, Vicki Cabriales, is CEO of the Chamber and receives a commission on top of her annual salary for each sponsorship she brings in.

“There was a concern that Mrs. Cabriales may have promised prospective Sponsors that if they provided a sponsorship to the Chamber, she would ensure that Councilmember Cabriales would vote to approve any contracts the Sponsors might have before the City Council,” states a letter from Deputy City Attorney Jennifer Mizrahi to the FPPC, which the Daily Press obtained from the state agency (click here to read the letter). “Our office contacted Mr. and Mrs. Cabriales, both of whom informed us that no Promises were ever made.”

When asked whether he felt his family had ever benefited financially through contracts he’s approved, Cabriales declined to comment.

“I’d prefer to wait until we get that ruling from (the FPPC), otherwise we’re just speculating,” he said, adding that he’d personally pushed for the independent review. “There’s nothing to hide. The facts are the facts.”

Government Code 1090 states that “city officers or employees shall not be financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity.”

The law states officials must recuse themselves from voting on or discussing any contract that could impact them financially. And that interest could include benefits to a spouse, as in the case of Grand Terrace Councilman Jim Miller who was arrested in 2009 for approving city advertisements in a newspaper run by his wife.

Deputy District Attorney John Goritz with San Bernardino County’s Public Integrity Unit said conflict of interest claims are often quite complicated, with a number of nuances regarding nonprofit corporations like the chamber and with time limits and minimum dollar thresholds to qualify. However, Goritz couldn’t discuss this particular case, since he said it’s the type that could end up on his desk.

In 2010, records show the HDHCC accepted membership fees of a couple hundred dollars or sponsorships for a couple thousand from Inland Energy, Stirling, Burrtec Waste, Dr Pepper Snapple and the Mojave Water Agency, to name a few. A contract for Vicki Cabriales shows she receives a 10 percent commission for each sponsor she recruits along with an annual bonus equal to 10 percent of the Chamber’s net operating income.

The city contracts with each of the above agencies, and the mayor pro tem has voted on a number of consent calendars and action items that involved establishing or making payment on those contracts. And while those votes didn’t send money directly to his wife’s employer, as Hill’s vote did in Grand Terrace, the FPPC is now looking into whether they potentially could have been influenced by donations made to the Chamber that bolstered his wife’s paycheck.

In March 2010, for example, financial records show the Chamber received a $5,000 sponsorship from Desert Valley Medical Group, plus another $3,000 that August. In December, Mayor Pro Tem Cabriales voted for Victorville to foot the bill for $500,000 of the hospital’s ongoing expansion project.

But it was a deal three months ago that triggered the current conflict of interest investigation, after Councilwoman Angela Valles said she was contacted by members of the Chamber with concerns over a recent sponsorship.

On Jan. 14, Los Angeles-based ICO Investment was listed as a “founding partner” for the HDHCC’s Legislative Power Lunch along with Southern California Edison.

Edison spokeswoman Nancy Jackson said her company helped create the annual luncheon and typically donates somewhere in the range of $10,000 to $15,000 in cash and in-kind donations to help pull it off. However, details weren’t available as to exactly what ICO’s sponsorship entailed, since the company didn’t return three calls for comment over a week and Rudy Cabriales said his wife underwent surgery and was unavailable for interviews.

Rudy Cabriales, who serves as president of the HDHCC’s foundation, said he’d never heard of ICO when he went to pick up the keys to the building the company had agreed to lend the Chamber for the luncheon. And three weeks later, when ICO’s name surfaced as the leading bidder to buy 1.78 acres of land from Victorville, the mayor pro tem said he didn’t feel the need to recuse himself from the vote since, as far as he knew, the company had only donated the use of its building.

On Feb. 1, the City Council approved allowing ICO to buy the land across from City Hall, with Cabriales motioning for the unanimous vote.

“This is just one instance, but it’s been alleged that this has been going on for years,” Valles said. “I do believe that in the interest of transparency, and in earning the trust of our constituents, that issues like these need to be vetted.”

During the last City Council meeting, Valles called for the Council to waive its attorney/client privilege and release an opinion City Attorney Andre de Bortnowsky rendered regarding the potential conflict. Mayor Ryan McEachron supported the move to avoid appearing like the city’s trying to hide something. However, with Councilman Mike Rothschild absent, the move failed on a 2-2 tie, with Cabriales opposing it and Councilman Jim Kennedy adamantly against waiving that protection.

McEachron said he believes it’s appropriate that the FPPC — and perhaps other agencies, such as the county’s Public Integrity Unit or state Attorney General — review the case to ensure there hasn’t been any wrongdoing. But in the meantime, the mayor said he’s not casting any judgment on a man who deserves respect for having served in the Marines, as Victorville’s first full-time fire chief and on the City Council for nearly 13 years.

“I think that Rudy needs to have his day in court,” McEachron said. “Until then, he’s innocent until proven guilty.”

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