One of the strangest sections of this year’s Grand Jury Report is the one dealing with radio purchases by the Lake Valley Fire Protection District in Meyers at Tahoe.
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The report discusses the case of Gareth Harris, who owned a retail store in Marin County, which he closed in 2002, but continued to operate as a home business. At some point he moved to Tahoe and was hired in 2005 as a fire marshal and battalion chief for Lake Valley.
As reported by the Grand Jury, the fire district had trouble communicating with dispatch because of poorly located repeaters. “In addition, a change in the FCC rules required the district to replace its broadband equipment with narrow band radios by 2013.”
Harris began selling his Kenwood radios and equipment to the district in 2008 “after being asked to submit a bid by former Fire Chief Jeff Michael.”
Here is where things get a little hinky. “The California Government Code Section 1090 prohibits public officers or employees from having any financial interest in any contract made by them or in their official capacity,” the Grand Jury wrote. “Harris reported that he was unaware of this statute prior to this issue being raised by the El Dorado County Auditor-Controller.”
The final sentence in that paragraph is as follows: “Several witnesses reported that Chief Michael said he checked with the (fire) district’s attorney about selling to the district.”
We’re not sure why the Grand Jury neglected to talk to the retired chief and the fire district’s attorney. There is no report that the former fire chief is not alive.
The fact is the auditor told the Mountain Democrat he wasn’t concerned about the radio purchase when the chief had solicited the bid and the board of directors was apprised of it.
“In his capacity as fire marshal and battalion chief, Harris had no official responsibilities in procurement of goods or services for the district,” the Grand Jury stated.
But in 2011, Harris became chief. In a what-were-they-thinking move, Harris continued to provide radio equipment to the fire district, even though by now he knew it was a conflict of interest and hence a violation of the law. He even filed a Form 700 required of key officials, which the Grand Jury took note of as if it were an excuse to continue what essentially was self-dealing. Form 700 is required by the Fair Political Practices Commission to identify potential conflicts of interest. This should have been a big clue to the new chief. The Grand Jury noted he stopped charging 5 percent over costs, but charged only his cost and sales tax.
Before becoming chief his billings of $7,357 were paid. After becoming chief his billings of $6,647 were paid. But another invoice in 2013 for $6,784 was just too much for Auditor-Controller Joe Harn, who notified the fire district that he wasn’t going to pay the invoice “because it appeared payment would be a violation of Government Code Section 1090. Harn told the district he would consult with county counsel and invited them to submit additional information to county counsel,” wrote the Grand Jury.
Here is Section 1090: “Members of the Legislature, state, county, district, judicial district, and city officers or employees shall not be financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity, or by any body or board of which they are members. Nor shall state, county, district, judicial district, and city officers or employees be purchasers at any sale or vendors at any purchase made by them in their official capacity.”
There are criminal or civil penalties for violating this, including prison.
When questioned by the Mountain Democrat, Harn said, “It is not illegal if they can prove he can’t make any money” on the sale of the radio gear.
Instead, the fire board dropped it. OK. But, from this point the Grand Jury gets downright confusing: “The only financial interest Harris may have had in sales to the district after he became chief were those that might accrue in the future from his continued relationship with Kenwood (radios). These are both speculative and de minimis.”
There is nothing de minimis about $13,431 in radio gear billings after he became chief. That is not “speculative”; it is fact. It is clearly a conflict of interest. Yet, the Grand Jury claims Harris didn’t violate Section 1090. The Grand Jury claimed it read Section 1090, but there seems no evidence that it understood it. On that issue we cite the Grand Jury’s strange conclusion that Harris “did not violate Government Code Section 1090.”
For the Grand Jury to conclude by saying the district should resubmit the bill and the auditor should pay it totally ignores the meaning of a conflict of interest. It also ignores the auditor’s obligation to make sure payments conform to law and that when the auditor requests additional information, the invoicing party should cooperate.