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It was somewhat encouraging watching the National Geographic documentary, “Water and Power: A California Heist,” and that’s because it showed that water politics throughout California are as messy as they are right here on the Monterey Peninsula. What with the decades of unproductive sparring over solving our water supply problem and with the rapidly escalating cost of tap water hereabouts, I had started thinking that maybe we were alone in our inability to fix anything.  I was thinking maybe it was something in the water.

The focus of the documentary, produced by Marina Zenovich with able assistance from author and investigative reporter Mark Arax, was the manipulation of groundwater rights and some remarkable profiteering that is going on, principally in the San Joaquin Valley but also just down the coast in San Luis Obispo County.

Which points me toward the purpose of this piece, a June 3 forum on new groundwater rules and what they mean to us in Monterey County. More specifically, it will focus on California’s long-delayed but hugely important effort to begin actually regulating groundwater instead of simply letting the fellow with the deepest well call the shots.

The speakers will be Tom Moore, vice president of the Marina Coast Water District board of directors, and Keith Van Der Maaten, general manager of the district. It’s not just an academic topic for these two because the desalination plant that California American Water plans to build would draw some of its water from underground supplies theoretically controlled by Marina Coast.

The terribly long title of the forum is “To learn how the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act may affect your water bill, your access to water and what groundwater sustainability agencies mean to us locally.” Under state mandate, Monterey County has formed a groundwater sustainability agency, which naturally is dominated by agribusiness interests.

In previous Partisan posts, I have labeled Moore as my favorite local politician, largely because of his incredibly deep knowledge of the subject matter and his ability to explain it all to folks like you and me.

The forum is set for 7 p.m. Saturday June 3 at the Marina Public Library, 190 Seaside Ave., in Marina. It is sponsored by the Marina Democratic Club, the Monterey County Democratic Central Committee and Citizens for Just Water.

In case you’d like to printout a reminder, here’s the flyer for the event.

BTW, the National Geographic special is available for rent on Netflix.


Proprietor’s note: I was in a familiar position, not knowing how to respond to something that bothered me. I had just read another article about how California farmers are upset about the newly passed legislation that would extend standard overtime pay provisions to farmworkers. In a Salinas Californian opinion piece, the head of the Monterey County Farm Bureau argued that the new rules would hurt field workers because the long, lucrative hours of harvest time would no longer be feasible.  Then I came across this piece that my old friend Mark Arax wrote for the Sacramento Bee. He doesn’t address the overtime issue directly, but he shines some light on the balance of power in the fields.

Strawberry picker migrant woorkersSELMA–There’s a stretch of Highway 99 in the middle of California where the new plantings of almonds at last give way to vineyards. This is where Selma, raisin capital of the world, still lives and dies by the grape. When the berries sugar up fast, as they have this year, harvest comes early.

The season finds the farmer at his most sour, contemplating an age-old question: Can enough workers be rounded up to pick the crop? He knows from empirical evidence that few citizens of the United States are willing to do the work. He knows that Selma’s salvation lies across the border.

When a grape grower plows under his father’s vines and plants almonds, he doesn’t speak of heartache or profit or pests or the need to save water. The reason, he’ll plainly tell you, is labor. A nut doesn’t require a hand to pick it. Because a machine does all the work, nothing bleeds in an almond orchard. The grape harvest, on the other hand, remains a race against rot: man against sky, man against fruit, man against man.

My father’s father, Aram, used to tell me how brutally the sun in the San Joaquin Valley beat down on a man who had lost his country. He had come from Istanbul in the summer of 1920 on the word of his uncle who swore that the grapes in this new land were the size of jade eggs. The uncle had lost his wife and two children in the Armenian genocide and had no one. He picked up my grandfather at the train station in Fresno, drove him to a vineyard in Weedpatch and when that first harvest was done told him he wished the train would have dropped off a sack of potatoes instead. My grandfather joined a legion of fruit tramps – Volga Germans, Japanese, Filipinos and Sikhs – who threw their fates to the fields.

By the time he bought his own 20 acres of grapes to lay in the sun to make raisins, the leafhoppers were plenty and the farmhands few. Only one country could still be counted on to send a steady supply of its most desperate to pick the crop. It’s been the same for the better part of a century. Every day in August, in the still dark of morning, the men and women from rural Mexico, curved blade in hand, fill up the vineyards on both sides of Highway 99. That they come without legal documents, with a smuggler’s debt hanging over their heads, is the shame we try to bury.

Growing up, I learned that a quarter of the food in the American diet came from our fields. How that food moved from earth to table wasn’t something we were taught. At Malloch Elementary, I threw touchdown passes to a new kid named Jorge Alvarez who showed up a month late for the sixth grade. He knew enough words of English to understand my play-calling. Streak left. Streak right. Man, he could fly. He was here and gone in a season.

The men and women who planted, irrigated, sprayed and picked our crops remained phantoms. The farmer himself didn’t know them. He had hired a labor contractor as his go-between. On our way to Disneyland, we must have blinkered our eyes heading down 99. We didn’t see the tumbleweeds at roadside and the strip of parched earth that separated what remained of the desert from the perfect rows of irrigated agriculture. We didn’t see our creation, much less the figures bent under the canopies of vine.

Then one day, they walked out of the fields and materialized in our streets with signs protesting their short-handled hoes and Third World wages. Suddenly, you were either with Cesar Chavez or against him. My grandfather began to write poems about his “brown brothers and sisters under the sun.” My father the lapsed grape grower tried to bring in El Chicano to perform at his nightclub. Such were our gestures.

On a recent Saturday morning, the car radio blasting the hot air of a cockeyed presidential campaign, I drove to the outskirts of Selma, past the packinghouse where I boxed peaches and plums as a kid, and came to a stop in a vineyard where the raisin harvest had begun. The thermometer had shot beyond 100 degrees for 14 straight days. Already, three farmworkers across parts of the Valley had died in the heat. The vineyard road was lined with last-leg Honda Civics. I stepped onto the fine, powdery loam and picked a dusty row to walk down. All was quiet. Not a worker could be seen.

A few yards inside, I heard the faint sounds of banda and followed the music to a cellphone in the back pocket of a skinny young man. He was wearing worn cowboy boots, torn jeans, one long-sleeved shirt over the other and a San Francisco 49er cap splattered with grape juice mixed with dust. He had parted the leaves and canes and was crouched completely inside the vine, hacking away at its purple bunches with one hand and letting the bunches plop into a plastic tub he held with his other hand. It took him 48 seconds to fill the tub. Then he bent over in the opposite direction and spilled the fruit onto a paper tray in the row’s middle, in full sun. This was the oven where the grapes would bake – 14 to 18 days – into raisins.

I introduced myself and my Spanish translator. He said his name was Uriel, and he was 21 years old and had come from the Mexican state of Guerrero, where his family had lived forever in poverty. Four years ago, after finishing the ninth grade, he decided to follow the well-worn trail that had once sent his father and older brother north. He hired a smuggler, a coyote, to get him past the border’s barriers. The $4,000 fee was double the price from a few years ago, but there was no haggling. These weren’t the coyotes of yesteryear. They were now at the command of the drug lords; two commodities crossed the border at once to satisfy America’s twin lusts.

“I came for just a year, and then the year turned into another year and another year and another year,” Uriel said.

He shared an apartment on the other side of the Valley with three farmworkers who were here alone, too. The drive to the vineyard took him 45 minutes in the dark, but he would have traveled farther because this farmer was paying by the piece. If he worked through lunch, nine hours straight, he would make more than the minimum wage. He would make 260 trays, or $105. This was more than he earned from a week’s labor in Guerrero. In the good months here, he was able to send half his paycheck back home.

The next row over belonged to Ponciano, who had crossed the border by himself when he was 12 and had worked the last eight years picking mandarins, blueberries, pears and apples. This was his first stab at raisin grapes, and he found the work miserable. He’d be lucky at day’s end to have made 200 trays, $75, he said. He sat on a jug of water eating a fried chicken leg. A handsome kid with seen-it-all eyes, he said he was looking for a wife to keep him here.

“I know there are better days coming soon,” he said. “If I can help it, I will not go back.”

He whistled to Jose, deeper in the vineyard, to join him on his break. But Jose had arrived from Mexico only a few days before and owed $3,000 to a friend who covered his border crossing. “My friend told me that the grapes turn into gold in California,” Jose said. “I came to find out if that was true.”

The sun was not quite overhead but already it felt like a furnace. There was one row where a grape picker had laid out the paper trays far in advance. This strategy seemed risky, for it had the potential to break a man’s spirit, to underscore the long quarter mile of row still to go. But as I watched the tiny figure covered in hoodie, hat and bandana, I could see that it was ingenious. It allowed the worker to build toward a trance of picking, filling and dumping that never broke to put down a tray.

I walked over to introduce myself and only then did I see that the picker was a woman. Her name was Maria and she had been working in the orchards and vineyards for 11 years. Her husband worked beside her. Together they could make $175 a day. “I don’t work as fast as I used to. I am 30, old already.”

She had awakened at 3 in the morning to fix lunch for herself and her husband and also to cook the food the babysitter served at home to their three children. During the harvest, she said, the routine never varied. After work, she washed the stains off her hands and face and prepared dinner and the next day’s lunch and gave the children a bath and tried to find a half hour to herself to think about something else. She thought about her dreams. Her children were born here, they were U.S. citizens, they would learn English and go to college and never work a day in the fields.

“Will they allow us to stay?” she said, her voice pleading.

His name had not come up, but she was speaking of Donald Trump and all that he had unleashed in the country. He had held a rally in Fresno before the harvest, and growers cheered and waved “Farmers for Trump” signs. Even some Mexican Americans had climbed aboard. It made no sense to her. An edict that sent the workers back to Mexico and a wall that kept them from returning? Who would pick the fruits and vegetables? How would the cities, much less the farms, survive?

“The man has a rock for a heart,” she said.

“Let them build a wall,” Uriel shouted from his row. “We will be like Spider-Man and vault it.”

“I’m afraid of heights,” Ponciano said, laughing. “We will be like gophers and tunnel underneath.”

“Don’t they know that they can’t keep us out?” Jose said, his face to the sun. “We are Mexicans.”

My visit was costing them time, money. I thanked them and got into my car and drove off. As I crossed the Kings River, I thought back to 1994, to the wake of another election, when I walked into a coffee shop in Selma to meet with a bunch of growers. I was then a journalist for the Los Angeles Times and wanted to hear their feelings about a controversial measure on the California ballot – Proposition 187 – that was going to deny public schooling and other benefits to illegal residents. The measure had passed emphatically. I was surprised to learn that some of the farmers had voted for it.

At the counter sat the biggest fruit grower in the Valley, a soft-spoken Lebanese American who knew my family and pulled me closer. Let me explain, he said. The farmer and the Mexican were engaged in a centurylong game. As rich as he was, his workers could bring him to his knees, if they realized their power. He didn’t like feeling vulnerable. He supported the proposition because he knew that even if it went into effect, nothing would change. Law or not, the Mexicans would keep coming to his fields. But he wanted them to always feel a little “iffy.”

Twenty years had gone by, but this winter, he and his sons were preparing to pull out every last acre of their table grapes. They were laying off 2,500 workers. They were making plans for their next generation. They were going to fill up the land with nuts.

Arax, author of “West of the West,” is a former Los Angeles Times reporter who is working on a book about California’s water wars, to be published by Knopf. Contact him at mark.arax@sbcglobal.net.


Seaside High School graduation, 2013


Like all California school districts involved in bond measures, the Monterey Peninsula school system has a citizens oversight committee. Oversight committees generally meet quarterly and confine their role to rubber-stamping whatever the district administration says about construction work financed by the latest bond issue.

But one project financed by the district’s $110 million Measure P of 2010, a new heating and air conditioning system for Seaside High School, proved to be so problematic that the committee made a special plea to the administration to be allowed to conduct a special study of the cost overruns and numerous other troubles.

Cost estimates had been exceeded and ultimately ignored. Administrative corners had been cut to speed up the project because students were shivering in unheated classrooms but everything was way behind schedule anyway.

Overseeing the project was Harris Construction of Fresno, which is now embroiled in a criminal investigation involving $117 million in school construction it performed in Fresno under a no-bid contract arrangement that has since been ruled illegal by an appellate court. It was a no-bid “lease-leaseback” bid contract arrangement much like its contract for the Seaside High work and several other contracts Harris was awarded by the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District.

Initially, the oversight committee’s request to investigate was ignored by then-Superintendent Marilyn Shepherd. But the committee persisted and, soon after she left the district, the school board authorized a special inquiry. The result was a special oversight committee report in March 2015, a remarkably pointed and candid report that found “utter disregard of contract provisions”and “blatantly obvious … lack of contract review.” (To view the report, click on this link, and when that opens, click on the “download now” button,)

The project was budgeted to cost $2.5 million but the price ran considerably higher because of general cost overruns and additional work that was not approved by the school board. Among other things, the contract that originally called for heating and air conditioning work morphed into one that included a new tennis court and repaving of outdoor basketball courts.

Rick Heuer, who chaired both the oversight committee and the subcommittee at the time, said it was impossible to determine the actual final cost to the district.

According to the report, “District staff did not inform the board of the project phasing, the increased scope of work, increased architect’s fees, increased cost estimates, scheduling or justification for the type of heating system selected. Design started in January of 2011. The board was kept in the dark about architect’s fees and phasing until August of 2013. Staff seems to consider this to be only a minor oversight.”


The report continues:

“Nowhere in the staff report was there any indication that the total value of the project would be. As a result no flags were raised regarding the potential overall cost of the project and its impact on the overall bond program and since no overall Bond Program Budget had been created there was no ability to assess the impact of what the total cost might be.

“It appears that little attention was paid to the accuracy of the contract documents. Besides the facts that not all provisions were enforced and contract amendments were not signed nor dated, the contract cover sheet was dated October 29, 2009, while the contract wasn’t executed until March 16, 2010 … .”

The report repeatedly complains that the school board was not kept up to speed on the work, the modifications or the increased costs.

“The inclusion of items totally unrelated to the heating system at Seaside High such as allowances for the tennis court, special education modernization and repaving of the basketball courts inflated the cost and were never reviewed in the context of the overall bond program. The title of the agenda item the board reviewed was ‘Discuss & Approve the Harris Construction Guaranteed Maximum Price for Seaside High School HVAC Upgrades, Paving and Various Related Projects.’ First, the items are not ‘related’ to HVAC upgrades. Second, the only place the costs of these add-ons are reviewed is in the contract itself.”

 Here’s the text of the Sept. 20, 2013, letter the MPUSD Citizens Bond Oversight Committee sent to the Board of Trustees requesting permission to investigate the cost overruns at Harris Construction’s Seaside High School project:

Dear Members of the Board:

At our last oversight committee meeting we were briefed on and briefly discussed the large cost overrun at Seaside High. Since that meeting we know that the board has been briefed on the overrun and it has been the subject of controversy. We continue to have questions about how it came to be, its impact on other bond projects and how we can ensure something such as this does not occur again. We would like your permission to do a full analysis of what occurred with this project, document for the public the entire process, make recommendations regarding any procedure changes which may improve the process and report back to you the results of our investigation. We feel this would allow for an objective review of this project and hopefully quell rumors and speculation.

Sincerely, Rich Heuer, Chairman

The report was available online, but never received outside attention. However, one of the committee members, Carole Dawson, says the situation has improved dramatically with Shepherd’s departure and the hiring of her successor, PK Diffenbaugh.

“The biggest improvement was getting a superintendent who is really good,” said Dawson, who now chairs the district’s bond oversight committee.

While Diffenbaugh has inherited some problematic contracts from the $110 million Measure P bond, he has improved oversight of the various processes and created an effective facilities advisory committee, said Dawson and others.


Ironically, Diffenbaugh was hired in 2014 as the result of an executive search headed by Terry Bradley, the former Clovis school superintendent who was largely responsible for hiring Harris Construction and the Fresno architectural firm, the Teter Partnerships, that were responsible for the cost overruns on the Seaside High project. Bradley maintained his office at Harris Construction and also was a partner for a solar company that did considerable work for Monterey Unified, but it isn’t known whether he disclosed his various roles.


Carole Dawson

Bradley was recently fined $50,000  by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for leaking confidential information from five school district clients to a bond firm, Keygent Advisors. Though Monterey Peninsula Unified School District was not one of the five districts, Keygent did serve as the lead financial adviser for Measure P and Bradley worked from January 2011 to January 2016 as a general financial adviser for MPUSD.

(While working on the superintendent search for the district, Bradley visited the Monterey Herald, ostensibly to question editors about the type of superintendent they would like. He spent most of the time, however, pitching the idea of a new bond measure to improve conditions at Marina High School, which he said was one of the worst school facilities he had ever seen.)

The special oversight subcommittee produced a remarkably comprehensive report on the Seaside H.S. with numerous suggestions for improving the district’s overall performance on renovation work. The committee itself was also remarkable, consisting of three people with particularly strong credentials.

Dawson is a retired civil engineer who worked in the public works departments for the cities of Monterey and Seaside, serving as project manager for several infrastructure improvements. She has been president of the California Society of Professional Engineers and has been highly active in neighborhood issues for the city of Monterey.  She has degrees in philosophy from the University of California Santa Barbara and in civil engineering from California State University Sacramento.

Heuer is a hotel consultant in Monterey and an active member of the Monterey Taxpayers Association. He has served on the Monterey planning and architectural review commissions. He holds degrees from the Monterey Institute of International Studies and the Fisher Graduate School of International Business.


Alastair Rodd

Committee member Alastair Rodd of Marina works as an international education consultant, primarily in Third World countries on projects involving education reform, decentralization and education financing. He holds bachelors degrees in economics and economic and social history from Bristol University and a masters in economics and African studies from Johns Hopkins University. He also has taken advanced studies in accounting.

School districts promoting bond issues invariably put heavy emphasis on the existence of a citizens oversight committee, creating the impression that a group independent of the district will be monitoring or even directing key decisions involving use of the bond money. In fact, such committees are generally relegated to simply certifying that the spending is legal. Heuer, who also has served on a bond oversight committee at Monterey Peninsula College, calls them “toothless.”

“If they spent $100,000 on a toilet, we couldn’t do anything about it,” Dawson said. Usually, such committees meet four times a year and are presented with little more than a list of spending in the previous quarter and a rubber stamp.


For the Seaside High project, however, the committee saw quickly that much more scrutiny was needed.

Dawson said the district staff early on informed the school board that the $2 million effort was going to cost at least $4 million, “but the explanation was just seven sentences. No detail.”

She recalled that the fees for Teter, the Fresno-based architect, “just kept going up and up, and they say, ‘Oops,’ it’s $400,000 instead of $250,000’ and ‘Oops, the project is $4 million instead of $2.5 million’ and ‘Oops, this urgency project, this the-kids-don’t-have-any-heat urgency project is going to take four years.’”

The report, authored by Dawson, said, “There seems to be a blatant disregard for completing this ‘urgent’ project in a timely manner. There was no time schedule for this project. The Board approved the Master Contract with Teter on October 5, 2009. The contract with Teter was not executed until nearly five and a half months later. Design did not begin until ten and a half months after that. Therefore, from Board approval to start of design was one year and four months. Then, design (for all three phases) took another two years to complete. Construction took eight months to complete. For this ‘urgent’ project, the total time from Board approval to construction completion for three phases was four years.”

Dawson said she was relieved when Shepherd left the district, following significant controversy, but disappointed that she had not authorized a special inquiry before she left.


She said the committee hung back on the issue for a time but was motivated to move ahead when Monterey Herald reporter Claudia Melendez Salinas wrote about the delays and cost overrun in January 2014. While the school board was going through the process that would lead to Diffenbaugh’s hiring, the committee sent a follow-up letter to the interim superintendent. He obtained board approval and the special committee inquiry began in April 2014.

Dawson said she was not surprised when she saw news accounts about Harris’ legal troubles in Fresno and Bradley’s SEC problems.

“We always suspected it could be something like this,” she said.

Harris installed air conditioning and heating systems at the district offices and in several schools under the lease-leaseback system, which the courts have now ruled to be an illegal device intended to circumvent the competitive bidding process.

In Fresno, where an FBI investigation appears to be in full swing, the school district hired Harris Construction to build a new middle school. It then leased the property to  Harris, putting the company instead of the district in charge of the project and enabling it to hire and manage subcontractors however it chose. Fresno blogger Mark Arax reported that Bradley, on behalf of the Fresno district, essentially promised construction contracts to Harris Construction in exchange for help financing the bond measure election campaign, which could amount to the type of quid pro quo that leads to bribery charges. Harris and several other firms involved in both the Fresno and Monterey bond measures also contributed to the Measure P campaign.

In Monterey and elsewhere, the lease-leaseback process was altered because schools were being renovated rather than built yet the properties were still technically leased to the contractor and various steps in the normal bidding process were eliminated.

An appeals court in Fresno ruled the practice illegal and the state Supreme Court let that opinion stand. The lawsuit that resulted in those rulings continues and, unfortunately for the Fresno district, the contract it signed with Harris requires the district to pay Harris’ legal fees in addition to its own. At least some of the Harris contracts with MPUSD contain the same provision.


Hand holding out a stack of money tied to the end of a stick for briberyCAST OF CHARACTERS HERE PERFECTED ‘PAY TO PLAY’ SCHEME IN FRESNO



For more than a year, the FBI and federal prosecutors have been conducting a criminal investigation of the construction contracting process used by the Fresno Unified School District – and it turns out several of the key players in the Fresno scandal have been involved in a remarkably similar series of transactions at the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District.

In both districts, the construction contracts were financed by huge bond measures approved by district voters in November 2010. In both districts, much of the construction work was awarded to Harris Construction of Fresno, much of the architecture work went to the Teter Partnerships of Fresno and the financial adviser overseeing both bond measures was Keygent Advisors.

Each set of bonds was underwritten by a team of bond firms. In Monterey, they were Piper Jaffray and Stone & Youngberg. In Fresno, it was Piper Jaffray and Stifel, which acquired Stone & Youngberg the next year.

And in both cities, the various entities were linked through one man, Terry Bradley, the former superintendent of the Clovis Unified School District, who agreed last month to pay a Securities & Exchange Commission fine of $50,000 for providing Keygent Advisors with confidential information that enabled the company to obtain bond work with five school districts while he was a paid consultant to Keygent.

Though the Monterey and Fresno bond issues — for $110 million and $280 million respectively — were among the largest that involved Bradley and Keygent, they were not among the districts involved in the conflict-of-interest scheme uncovered by the SEC. Those districts were in the San Joaquin Valley communities of Clovis, Caruthers, Dinuba, Reedley and Sanger, each of which was using Bradley as a financial adviser. (See the previous Partisan article on SEC case.)

Newly surfaced emails subpoenaed by the FBI suggest that while Bradley was helping administer the proceeds of Monterey’s Measure P by helping the coastal district select architects and contractors, he also was the mastermind behind a creative contracting process in Fresno designed to guarantee large construction contracts with Fresno firms that agreed to help finance successful bond measures. The biggest beneficiary of that scheme, focus of the FBI inquiry, was Harris Construction, where Bradley maintains his office.


Terry Bradley, wearer of many hats

Critics of school bonding practices in California have long complained that it has become a “pay-to-play” system: Companies that cough up money for bond campaigns have a distinct advantage when it comes time to divvy up the bond consulting and contracting work. But according to numerous news reports in Fresno, it appears that Bradley took the system a step forward and created a way to guarantee that big campaign spenders would get their reward in the form of construction contracts. Apparently as reward for contributing to the Fresno bond campaign, Harris was given a contract to build a middle school without having to go through a competitive bidding process. Instead, the district used a “lease-leaseback” method, involving secret negotiations with Harris, in a process that an appellate court later ruled to be illegal.

At the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, or MPUSD, the 2010 bond measure financed considerable renovation work, not new schools, but the district used the same non-competitive, “lease-leaseback” structure to award several renovation contracts to Harris, some of which were worth more than $1 million.

On its Facebook page in 2011, Harris Construction congratulated MPUSD for its facilities upgrade project and said it was “proud to be part of the Lease-Lease Back team implementing the plan ….”

Based on the number of commonalities, including the timing, it seems likely that the Monterey school district’s Measure P of 2010 and Fresno Unified’s Measure Q may have been sold to bonding and construction companies as a package deal. Harris and the Piper Jaffray bond firm contributed to both bond campaigns, for instance. Keygent contributed to both the Monterey and Fresno bond measures.

Although they sound complicated, school bond measures really aren’t that difficult to understand. In most cases, districts wanting to build or renovate schools ask voters to allow the district to borrow money. Rather than simply go to a bank to borrow cash, the districts hire various bond specialists who invite investors to buy the bonds or, in other words, to lend money to the districts at a pre-determined interest rate.

With California schools borrowing billions of dollars annually, a cottage industry has grown up around the state’s education system – a self-perpetuating, self-dealing cottage industry. Bonds can’t be issued without the approval of district voters, so the districts set up quasi-independent committees to run campaigns to persuade the voters to say yes. Those campaigns are largely financed by the various bond specialists who hope to obtain contracts to handle the technical aspects after the successful elections.

In the case of MPUSD’s Measure P, the committee was headed by Sharon Albert, wife of Dan Albert Jr., who retires this week as MPUSD’s associate superintendent for business and finance. Only three bond firms contributed to the campaign and each received a piece of the action. Those were Stone & Youngberg and Piper Jaffray, which each gave $20,000, and Keygent, which gave $10,000. In other words, the decision on who would handle the bonds was essentially made when the bond companies wrote their checks out to the Measure P campaign. Presumably Keygent didn’t need to contribute as much because it had already been hired as the district’s bond overseer.

The San Francisco law firm of Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth contributed $3,000 and was later hired as bond counsel for Measure P.


Measure P-financed construction work at Seaside High School

Fresno’s Harris Construction contributed $2,500 to the Measure P effort. The Teter architecture partnership in Fresno, closely affiliated with Harris, contributed $10,000 to the Measure P campaign before the November vote and $5,000 more two months after voters enthusiastically approved the measure. Like Harris, Teter received several significant contracts for projects financed from the Measure P proceeds.

Which bond firms get the work matters because lack of competition enables them to charge higher fees and could take away incentives to shop for the lowest interest rate for the district. With such a large amount of money being financed over a long period, even tiny variations in interest rates can cost or save a school district considerable sums. In the case of Measure P, MPUSD officials have said it is costing the owner of a $500,000 property about $150 annually.

The best reporting on the Fresno investigation has been by author Mark Arax, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who now produces a blog, the Arax File. In a post this week, he wrote of a series of emails dating to 2010 in which Bradley apparently hatched his plan to attract bond campaign money by promising construction contracts for contributors.

Arax referred to Bradley as “the man in the middle,” a role he played in Monterey as well as Fresno.

In Fresno, Arax wrote, “it was Bradley, also acting as a paid consultant to Fresno Unified, who helped persuade the district to convert to a lease-leaseback method of school building. In doing so, the district’s long practice of competitive bidding gave way to a controversial—and ultimately abused— method in which a single favored contractor controlled the construction process from design to turnkey.”

Key to making it all work was getting the Fresno bond measure passed. To do so, the district turned to Bradley, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and Harris Construction, headed by Richard Spencer, one of Fresno’s most active builders and most generous campaign contributors.

“Persuading taxpayers to pass the bond was no easy challenge,” Arax wrote. “The economy was mired in a deep recession, for one. The school district and its public and private partners—the so-called Citizens for Quality Neighborhood Schools— were trying to raise tens of thousands of dollars for yard signs and radio, TV and newspaper ads.

“As the campaign kicked off, Richard Spencer and his subcontractors were playing hard to get, emails show. Early on, Spencer had committed $5,000 to the Measure Q effort, but weeks passed without a cash contribution from him or his family members ….

“On Aug. 11, 2010, emails show, Terry Bradley stepped forward to assume the role of a broker. For the first time, he informed a member of the Measure Q committee that the Spencers were holding back on campaign cash because they were unhappy with the way Fresno Unified awarded its construction contracts.


Marshall Elementary School receiving part of its Measure P facelift

“Whether (district officials) knew it at the time, Bradley was a man with divided loyalties. He was wearing—or was about to wear—three different hats: a paid consultant to Fresno Unified on Measure Q, an adviser to an education bond firm based in El Segundo called Keygent and a promoter of lease-leaseback contracts on behalf of Harris Construction.

“This juggling feat, as it turned out, was not only impressive and highly lucrative but a flagrant conflict of interest that would land Bradley, six years later, in the crosshairs of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.”

Arax wrote that Bradley suggested that Harris would hand over more money for the bond campaign if the district would agree to a more Harris-friendly method of awarding construction contracts.

“’If FUSD would use construction delivery methods that Harris has emphasized for the past several years (construction manager with multiple primes and/or lease-leaseback), the contribution would have been much higher,’” Bradley wrote in one email. “’Contractors are reluctant to give large contributions to bond campaigns when projects are awarded on a design-bid-built delivery method with the project always going to the lowest bidder.’”

Additional discussions transpired and, with the bond measure election rapidly approaching, “the Spencers and their subcontractors would pony up tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions for Measure Q; Fresno Unified would soon begin to tout the lease-leaseback method in its public presentations,” Arax wrote.

Over the next two weeks, campaign records show, Richard Spencer gave $25,000 to the Measure Q effort. Over the next four years, without competitive bidding, Harris Construction would receive $117 million of the more than $280 spent by Fresno Unified.