A water district that serves southeast Los Angeles County has awarded millions of dollars in contracts to politically connected individuals and organizations, which have helped the district fight critics and avoid outside scrutiny, public records and interviews show.
The Central Basin Municipal Water District's relationships with state legislators, a former mayor of Bell and other political insiders have enabled the obscure utility to accumulate clout in Sacramento and in the industrial corridor along the 710 Freeway.
At the heart of the district's political ties is the Oldtimers Foundation, a nonprofit organization that was run for many years by George Cole, a former Bell mayor and councilman who has served on the water district's elected board of directors.
In the last five years, Oldtimers has received more than $2.5 million from Central Basin. Oldtimers provides low-cost housing, dial-a-ride programs and other services to municipalities. The water district has paid it to install water-saving toilets and promote water conservation, among other services.
Central Basin has also paid Oldtimers' board president, former Assemblyman Tom Calderon, more than $750,000 in consulting fees since 2004 for political and legislative advice.
Calderon's two brothers, both state legislators, have defended the water district's interests in Sacramento. In 2009, Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) helped thwart an audit of Central Basin's books. This year, Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Whittier) proposed legislation that could reduce the fees Central Basin's customers pay for groundwater.
Tom and Ron Calderon, as well as Central Basin officials and contractors, helped finance a recall effort in 2008 against two council members in the City of Commerce who were critics of the water district, records show.
Tina Baca Del Rio, one of the targeted council members, said she had opposed Central Basin's proposal to build a pipeline through her city. Baca Del Rio was recalled but won her seat back in 2009. The other council member, Robert Fierro, avoided recall by a narrow margin.
Central Basin is a wholesaler that sells imported water to dozens of communities and water companies in southeast L.A. County. The district has about 20 employees and hires contractors to provide most of its services. The five board members each represent a portion of its service area.
The district has come under criticism from customers, elected officials and the state auditor for a surcharge it imposed to help pay for a pipeline that distributes recycled water for industrial uses and irrigation.
Critics say the pipeline will never pay for itself and has become a costly burden on water customers.
Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk), whose congressional district overlaps with Central Basin's service area, said the utility has refused to share information about its finances and rate structure.
She also said it was a conflict of interest for Ron and Charles Calderon to sponsor legislation affecting an agency for which their brother is a paid consultant.
"I'm concerned about this water district and about who may be behind it for a power grab," Napolitano said in an interview. "What is the end that they are seeking? That to me is the question."