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Supervisor's Dating and Votes Mixed

San Bernardino County official says it was proper to help award millions in contracts to the clinic operated by his girlfriend at the time.

April 04, 2006|H.G. Reza and Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writers

San Bernardino County Supervisor Dennis Hansberger voted to award nearly $3 million in county contracts to a substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling center while he was dating the agency's executive director, according to county records and interviews.

Mary Trost and Hansberger confirmed that they were in a relationship from about 1998 to 2001, while she was in charge of the nonprofit Redlands-Yucaipa Guidance Clinic Assn. Inc., now called Vista Guidance Centers.

During that time, Hansberger voted at least eight times on contracts awarded to the center, which is in his district and has received about $18 million in contracts since fiscal year 1996-97, records show.

The vast majority of contracts were approved unanimously on the Board of Supervisors' consent calendar.

Hansberger, a county supervisor from 1972 to 1980 and elected again in 1996, said that because the agency had received contracts long before he started dating Trost, and because she didn't own the agency, there was no conflict of interest.

"This is not a campaign contributor; this isn't a business associate; this isn't a developer or a lobbyist that I might be friends with.... This is a community-based organization that serves people who are poor and disadvantaged," he said.

Hansberger said his relationship with Trost was no secret and that "no one ever said, 'Hey, is [voting for the contracts] a problem?' "

Trost, who stepped down as the agency's executive director in 2002 and now lives in Arizona, said the votes did not present an ethical dilemma either to her or the supervisor.

"There's nothing funny there. There's no conflict," Trost said. "We had a contract before we were dating, while we were dating and after we were dating."

Without their personal finances intertwined, the supervisor said, he saw no reason to abstain from voting and would vote for the contracts again. In fact, the supervisor said, he dissuaded Trost from helping his campaign in 2000 so no one could conclude that the clinic was getting contracts in exchange for her help.

"If I could've done more [for the clinic], I would've done it," Hansberger said. "I believe in the mental health system and am an advocate for these programs."

A spokesman for the county district attorney's public integrity unit said the office received a complaint in January about Hansberger's votes on behalf of the clinic but said it had not launched an investigation.

State conflict-of-interest laws prohibit public officials from making decisions that benefit themselves, their spouses or their children. In 2004, board Chairman Bill Postmus said those rules made it acceptable for him to vote to approve a $77,000 contract for a charter school that employed his father.

But votes that affect someone whom a public official is dating, although not illegal, are questionable, said Bob Stern, president of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

"It's one thing to buy them a movie ticket; it's another to give them a contract.... You're supposed to be voting in the best interests of the county, not the best interests of the person you're dating," he said.

And Robin Aaron, who succeeded Trost as executive director of the nonprofit, said she was surprised to learn about the relationship and added that "no contracts were approved under my watch that were a conflict."

Hansberger was elected to his second stint on the board in 1996, representing a district that includes Redlands and many towns in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Shortly after Hansberger took office the second time, a county corruption scandal ensnared two former top administrators, former Supervisor Gerald "Jerry" Eaves and a host of local political players in bribery and kickback schemes.

Hansberger, who was not implicated, has often spoken of mending the county's image by holding public officials accountable for questionable acts.

He was among the staunchest critics of Elizabeth Sanchez, the county human resources director who resigned in 2004 because of her relationship with the president of the county sheriff's deputies union, James Erwin. The two became involved after contract negotiations with the county had ended, she has said.

Sanchez named Hansberger in a lawsuit she filed against the county in January, alleging breach of contract and defamation and saying the supervisor impugned her reputation by falsely insinuating that gifts Erwin gave her amounted to bribes.

In another case in 2004, Hansberger abstained from voting on an issue affecting fire-ravaged Cedar Glen after the San Bernardino Sun suggested that he had a conflict of interest because his father, Leroy, owned property near the mountain town.

The supervisor called the suggestion "misleading and irresponsible" but said he wanted to remove any perception of wrongdoing.

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