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E-Mails Tell of Officials' Energy Plans

Activist says messages from 2 Corona councilmen show conflict of interest during Edison takeover try.

September 10, 2004|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Corona officials on Thursday released nearly 1,000 pages of e-mails and deposition transcripts, which two community activists contend will show that two city councilmen and others had an illegal conflict of interest during Corona's unsuccessful effort to take over Southern California Edison facilities.

The e-mails are between councilmen Darrell Talbert and Jeff Miller, two city utility employees and an attorney the city hired to represent them on the Edison matter.

The five men were investors in Municipal Energy Solutions, a consulting firm Talbert and Miller formed that sought to help other cities create municipal utilities.

The communications shed new light on the defunct firm, describing the investors planning their marketing efforts, developing logos and promotional information, setting up meetings with city leaders and staff throughout the Inland Empire, and dreaming of profits.

"I can just smell the money," wrote Talbert on Oct. 14, 2002, in an e-mail to his partners.

The company never landed a contract, but it led activists Jack Wyatt and Louise Mazochi to question whether Talbert and Miller had a conflict of interest in voting for the Edison takeover. They also questioned whether the council's discovery of Municipal Energy Solutions led to its decision to end the takeover attempt, and whether the attorney advising the city, David Huard, violated his firm's contract when he became an investor in the company.

At a press conference Thursday in front of Corona City Hall, Mazochi urged Talbert and Miller to resign from the council.

"These men have betrayed the public trust and they misled the public throughout this entire situation," Mazochi said. "Their claim that MES was not a conflict of interest is nothing more than political rhetoric. It's an attempt to cloud the truth of their effort to use their official city positions and information from utility consultants owned by the city to form a private business for their personal gain."

Talbert and Miller said several attorneys, as well as city police, county prosecutors and the FBI, have cleared them of wrongdoing. They dismissed the allegations by Wyatt and Mazochi as politics during an election year. Miller and council foe Jeff Bennett are up for reelection in November.

"There's no smoking gun. There's no new information. Good-old-fashioned dirty politics arrives in Corona," Talbert said. The e-mails "are private conversations between a group of people from their home computers strategizing about how to grow a business."

The situation has its roots in the energy crisis of 2000 and 2001, when Edison customers' bills skyrocketed. Cities such as Riverside and Anaheim, which have their own municipal utilities, were able to keep rates lower than those that relied on Edison. That prompted some cities to start their own utilities. But Corona went further, trying to seize Edison's power lines, substations and other infrastructure.

Miller and Talbert were advocates of the takeover plan, which was approved by the council in late 2002. Edison fought the plan, and the city dropped its bid in May 2003 after spending more than $3 million.Wyatt and Mazochi requested the documentation released Thursday through the Public Records Act. Talbert and Miller won a preliminary injunction to prevent the release, but a judge ruled Wednesday that about 180 e-mails must be released.

In them, Miller's wife raised questions about the involvement of David Huard, partner in Municipal Energy Solutions and a lawyer who represented Corona on energy issues.

"... Deb is really busting me up on [Huard]'s inclusion. She thinks if he has to 'hide' the income it WILL come back to bite us," Miller wrote to Talbert on June 23, 2002. "You know the whole thing: his firm will come after us and expose how we may have funneled contracts to us or the competitors doing it. ... woman have the instincts and I am not sure what to do. She says How will you explain it ... when you go to jail. OUCH. Let's talk tonight. I am deleting this e-mail, so don't respond to the above issue."

Wyatt and Mazochi said they will send the documents to the state's Fair Political Practices Commission and attorney general's office.

They said e-mails showing that MES wanted to apply to become an energy service provider put the company in direct conflict with the city of Corona, which is an energy service provider.

"The release of the e-mails is not the end of the matter," Wyatt said. "Frankly, it's just the beginning."

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