12:10 AM PDT on Sunday, May 22, 2011

By JEFF HORSEMAN
The Press-Enterprise

PDFs: Read complaints against Rancho California Water District board members Steve Corona | Ben Drake

A senior staff member at the Rancho California Water District is accusing two board members of hiding or ignoring conflicts of interest between their private lives and public responsibilities.

The state Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating the written complaints against Ben Drake and Steve Corona filed by Perry Louck, the Temecula-based district’s director of planning.

The commission enforces California’s rules created to prevent elected officials from unjustly enriching themselves or those connected to them.

The district provides water to more than 120,000 people in Temecula, part of Murrieta and nearby unincorporated areas.

Drake and Corona have been on the seven-member board of directors, an elected body, since 2001.

Under penalty of perjury, Louck, who provided copies of his complaints, alleged that Drake, who manages farmland in the Temecula area, broke the law when he lobbied district staff to install irrigation monitoring equipment for his clients.

“Despite a legal opinion from the Districts (sic) General Counsel, he repeatedly called the staff person involved in the selection of sites for the project and pressured them to install the devices at his clients (sic) sites,” Louck wrote.

“When staff refused to comply with his request, he then argued at the (Jan. 13) Board meeting … that his clients should be able to receive these devices and that he strongly disagreed with legal counsels (sic) opinion and demanded that they reverse it.”

Louck also alleged that Drake tried to get the district to negotiate with compost providers so he and his clients could get free compost.

Drake declined comment on the allegations

In addition to the district board, Drake serves on state and local agriculture-related boards, including that of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association.

WIFE’S WORK

Louck alleged Corona, whose family owns Big Horse Feed & Mercantile in Temecula, failed to report on a state-mandated economic interest disclosure form that his wife, Maureen, works as a real estate and property manager.

One of Maureen Corona’s clients, the Date Street Owners Association, got a $40,000 refund from the district “under special circumstances,” Louck wrote.

Corona abstained from voting on the refund, but he “did not disclose his conflict until after the item was announced and fully discussed, and did not leave the dais nor the room,” Louck alleged.

He added that Drake “was blatantly advocating on Mr. Corona’s behalf for the refund even though this was contrary to District policy.”

Corona said he raised his hand to recuse himself when the item came up under the board’s consent calendar, a group of typically routine agenda items passed by the board in one vote.

He said board President Lawrence Libeu first called on board member Lisa Herman, who asked a question about Date Street before Corona had a chance to explain his conflict.

Regarding the economic interest form, Corona said “If (my wife) is not involved in the water district business or she’s not involved in a project where the water district’s doing a contract or something, I didn’t see that I should report that.

“I don’t know every project she works on,” he said. “I think (Louck’s) misconstruing what happened.”

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