SANTA CLARITA — The governing board of the Castaic Lake Water Agency, faced with a complaint that four agency officials may have violated state conflict-of-interest laws, hired a high-powered Sacramento political law firm Thursday for advice.
Emerging from a long, closed-door meeting, the agency's board voted 9 to 1 to retain the law firm of Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor to deal with the conflict complaint that two activists filed Monday with the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
"They are a firm with lawyers who make it their business to read each and every decision. They're experts in the area," said agency attorney Robert Clark. The firm is headed by Steven Merksamer, who served as chief of staff for former Gov. George Deukmejian, and former Assembly Republican Leader Robert Naylor.
Clark and other water agency officials would not indicate how much the agency expects to pay the law firm, saying a contract had yet to be signed. But one agency source said the board in closed session discussed amounts ranging from $5,000 "for a quick assessment" to as much as $25,000.
Earlier in a public session of the meeting that began on Wednesday, agency General Manager Robert Sagehorn gave the board an hourlong presentation defending the agency's new $116-million Rio Vista Water Treatment Plant, which began delivering water Wednesday, months behind schedule and 45% above original cost estimates.
Based on public records, The Times reported Monday that Sagehorn and three current and past board members had helped shape millions of dollars in agency projects benefiting Newhall Land & Farming Co., the region's largest developer, while having financial ties to the company.
Two local elected officials--Lynne Plambeck and Ed Dunn, board members of the Newhall County Water District, and agency critics--then asked the FPPC to investigate possible wrongdoing by Sagehorn, board members Richard Green and Robert DiPrimio, and former board member Stephen McLean.
Clark would say only that the law firm was hired "to advise the agency on FPPC matters." And of the conflict allegations, he said: "All decisions that were made were made in full compliance with the Political Reform Act. We feel very strongly about that."
At issue are agency actions over the past three years to grade a road through Newhall Land property worth an estimated $3 million, plan a $4.2-million reclaimed water system that would exclusively serve Newhall Land projects, and award a $576,610 contract to relocate an agency water line that ran, in part, under property owned by Newhall Land.
As agency general manager, Sagehorn directed all three projects. McLean voted twice for the road grading contract. The three board members all voted for the pipe relocation contact. And Green and DiPrimio acknowledged supporting the reclaimed water plan to serve Newhall Land projects.
Sagehorn, McLean, Green and DiPrimio have financial ties with the company. As of Thursday, agency officials said they had not been contacted by anyone from the FPPC.