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Angry Officials Trade Charges Over Hotel Bills, Expenses : Water district: Feud between board member and general manager erupts in hostile debate about possible misuse of the agency's money. An informal audit will be conducted.

September 09, 1993|EMILY ADAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PICO RIVERA — An argument over hotel bills and other expenses turned into a showdown between the general manager and a board member of the tiny Pico Water District this week, with charges of fraud and stupidity flying in a packed district meeting.

The faceoff occurred six months after board member Fred Silva called for an investigation of the district's finances, charging that General Manager Hal Maupin misused district funds.

Maupin, in turn, accused Silva of not being able to read the district's regular audits and told Tuesday's meeting, "He never asks an intelligent question." Maupin's allies on the Water District Board of Directors proposed that Silva be censured if he did not present concrete evidence of Maupin's wrongdoing.

After 2 1/2 hours of often-hostile debate, the board agreed to allow Silva and board Chairman Robert Santillan to conduct an informal inquiry into the expenses of the district that supplies water to a 2.9-square-mile area of Pico Rivera not covered by the city's water department. The board also decided not to censure Silva.

Silva complained that Maupin and other board members spent up to $169 a night on hotel rooms when they attended conferences, charged in-room movies and bar tabs to the district and held fancy banquets that they called "safety meetings."

Maupin and his supporters on the board--Michael Mendoza and Lydia Mae Mercado--described the expenses as being completely legal business costs.

Trouble has been brewing between Maupin and Silva since Silva was elected to the five-member board in November, 1991.

Silva, who campaigned for change, was the top vote-getter in a four-way race for two seats. The change he wanted became apparent soon after Silva took his seat on the board. He questioned most district expenditures and often voted, along with board member Manny Jurado, against reimbursing Maupin for his expenses, especially when items such as $50 lunches for two were included.

Silva charged that Maupin was using a water district credit card for personal expenses and asked the board to authorize an audit of district business be conducted for 1980 to 1993. Maupin, who earns nearly $80,000 a year, has been general manager of the district since 1979.

The board majority declined to have an audit performed. The issue came to a head last month when the board majority demanded that Silva publicly give proof of his allegations. There were several delays but Silva finally offered a sheaf of documents Tuesday in the tiny water district meeting room.

The room in a converted house was packed with an audience of about 20 people as Silva began his presentation.

In three years, the district spent about $5,500 at one local restaurant and more than $1,500 for flowers, Silva said. An annual "safety meeting" for the district's 11 employees, board members and spouses cost the district $4,000 this year.

"They had open wine on the table, hors d'oeuvres and everything. For appetizers they had artichokes, prosciutto, scallops and mushroom caps. They had an open bar and they called this a 'safety meeting,' " Silva said.

Maupin agreed that these expenses had occurred, but said they were all legitimate business costs. Maupin described the "safety meeting" as a thank-you to employees for keeping insurance costs down. The district pays a premium for workers' compensation insurance, and part of it is refunded if claims are kept to a minimum, Maupin said. The banquet was paid for out of the district's refund, he said.

Silva also charged that the general manager and the rest of the board stayed at the most expensive hotels during the three annual conferences that the board attends.

Maupin accused Silva of grandstanding by staying in inexpensive motels.

"We've got one parasite who doesn't want to participate (in conference activities)," Maupin said, hotly. "He wants to stay at the Motel 26 so he can grandstand before the people."

"I stay in an air-conditioned hotel, but I don't stay in the most expensive one," Silva said.

The district spends about $26,000 of its $2.2-million annual budget on travel. Before conferences, board members and Maupin are given credit cards for meals, car rentals and other expenses, Maupin said. He admitted that some expenses such as in-room movies and bar tabs might be questionable, but said that directors were trusted to act like prudent adults when attending conferences.

After one exchange in which Maupin told Silva, "You are ignorant," and shouted at Jurado, who interrupted him, to "shut up," board Chairman Santillan reminded Maupin that the board members are his bosses.

Finally, Santillan, a 12-year veteran of the board, offered the compromise that all agreed to.

Santillan offered to meet with Silva, compile a list of his concerns and questions, then get answers from the district's auditor. The board also discussed putting together an ethics committee to review their travel and expense policies, but no decision was made Tuesday.

Although Maupin and Silva scored partial victories in their ongoing battle, the issue has not been put to rest, Silva said.

"I served over six years in the Navy and I feel like an admiral," Silva said. "When faced with a situation like this, I say: 'Man the torpedoes and full speed ahead.' "

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