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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Official Faces Trial in Water Theft

Court: Judge rules evidence is sufficient in the case of a Meiners Oaks utility manager accused of failing to fix meters on landlord's property.

July 29, 1999|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The top official of a water district near Ojai will stand trial on charges he stole more than $1,300 worth of water for his rental home and horse-boarding business.

Ventura County Superior Court Judge Brian J. Back said at a preliminary hearing Wednesday that prosecutors have enough evidence to go forward with their case against Ron Singleton, manager of the Meiners Oaks County Water District. Singleton is charged with a single felony count: theft of utility services. His next court appearance has been set for Aug. 11.

Prosecutors say whether or not Singleton directly caused two water meters on his landlord's property to stop recording water use--one in late 1995, the other in late 1996--he knew for years that his staff needed to fix or replace the meters and he effectively blocked those repairs.

"All the employees say they knew the meters weren't working and Singleton knew the meters weren't working," Deputy Dist. Atty. Denise Grimes said. "He prevented the water district from being able to charge him accurately. He used his position as a manager to circumvent [the law]."

Edward Whipple, Singleton's lawyer, said his client denies intending to steal water. He said Singleton is, at the most, guilty of being several months late in paying his bill, which has since been paid. The water district ultimately back-billed $380 to an account in Singleton's name and another $942 to an account in the name of his landlord, who has not been charged.

Whipple argued unsuccessfully that prosecutors could only charge Singleton with a misdemeanor, because his share of the alleged theft was below the $400 threshold for a felony. The judge disagreed, saying the alleged theft included water that would have been counted by both meters, not just the one in Singleton's name.

Robert Briner, senior investigator for the district attorney's office, testified that Singleton asked his landlord for permission to board horses on the ranch in late 1995, and agreed to pay the water bills for care of the horses.

Briner said Singleton's explanation for not fixing the meters was that the work was complicated and might involve replacing one and running new lines.

Water bills for Singleton and his landlord were only $7 per month and $26 per month, respectively, Briner said. Meanwhile, Briner said a witness told him approximately 50 horses were being cared for at the ranch, which had so much water running at times that conditions were "swamp-like" and there may have been an underground leak.

If convicted, Singleton, 60, could face up to three years in prison.

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