Metropolitan Water District's little-known trips raise questions

Since 2011, the Metropolitan Water District has spent $2 million on little-known inspection trips.
Since 2011, the Metropolitan Water District has spent $2 million on little-known inspection trips.
Karen Foshay/KPCC

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The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) has spent more than $2 million in public money in the past three years on weekend field trips to water facilities, and the presence of MWD board members' relatives, campaign donors and those with business before the agency has raised questions about who is benefiting from the outings.

The MWD is a wholesaler of water to more than two dozen cities and water districts in southern California, including L.A.'s Department of Water and Power.  The MWD has 37 board members, almost all of whom represent a member agency. As part of their duties, board members sponsor "inspection trips" throughout the year.

Few are aware of the inspection trips, which the MWD says are designed to educate community members and elected officials about water issues.  Typically, 25 to 30 people go on the trips, which occur nearly every weekend and are paid for by the MWD. 

KPCC reviewed inspection trip records from 2011 through 2013 and found the MWD spent more than $2.2 million taking approximately 2,500 people on tours of locations such as the Colorado River and the San Joaquin Delta. The costs of these trips varied from $2,000 to $30,000. 

The biggest expense was airline travel.  In February 2011, MWD paid more than $16,000 to fly 32 people to see the San Joaquin Delta.  Last October, the agency spent nearly $20,000 flying 33 people to see the Delta. 

"I do think [the trips] are important and I think it’s important people learn about their water supply," said MWD general manager Jeff Kightlinger. "I do think they serve a real purpose."

The money spent on the inspection trips is barely a blip in the MWD’s budget, according to Kightlinger, who noted that the outings consume less than $1 million a year out of a $1.8 billion budget.

It’s not so much the cost of the inspection trips as it is who is going that concerns Kathay Feng of the government watchdog group Common Cause.

"It may have some educational aspect to it but it also appears that there may be some members of various water districts that are using that trip as an excuse to...gain access to potential donors," said Feng.

According to Kightlinger, MWD board members are in charge of who goes on their inspection trips.  A review of guest lists showed while the majority of guests were elected officials and water experts,  some board members brought along relatives, campaign donors and people with business before the MWD and its member agencies.

MWD board member Rudy Montalvo sponsored a September 2012 trip to the San Joaquin Delta for 33 people, seven of whom were Montalvos, including Rudy Montalvo, Jr. The field trip cost $25,000, with more than half spent on airfare.

Campaign donors have gone on a number of trips, according to MWD records.

Former MWD board chair Phil Pace has gone on four trips since leaving the agency – three with MWD board member Bob Apodaca.  Pace gave Apodaca a $10,000 loan for his water district run in 2004 and has donated to Apodaca’s subsequent campaigns.

Kightlinger suggested Pace may have been along for the trip to provide educational background, since he was a former board chair.

Phil Pace isn’t the only campaign donor to go on an Apodaca inspection trip.

Apodaca’s June 8, 2013 day trip to Diamond Valley Lake included Andy Camacho, whose brother’s engineering firm has received millions of dollars in contracts from the  Central Basin Municipal Water District. Apodacoa serves on the Central Basin board. Another guest on that trip was Leon Garcia, who contributed to Apodaca’s campaign and has a consulting contract with Central Basin.

"Whoever applies, first come, first serve," said Apodaca. "Could be a man who retired 30 years ago or it could be a company that wants to do business with [the MWD]. I don’t distinguish that. I have nothing to do with who they are."

KPCC found some other instances of board members taking campaign donors and people with business before water districts on trips.

Former Assemblymember Dick Ackerman has been on several trips – some with his wife Linda, who is an MWD Board member, and one with Larry Dick, another MWD board member who represents the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC).  Ackerman and his PAC have donated to Dick’s water district campaign and Ackerman's law firm, Nossaman, has received a contract from the MWDOC.  

Dick told KPCC that most of the people who go on his trips are community members tasked with educating the public on water issues.  He also said he welcomes transparency when it comes to looking at who goes on the trips.

HDR Engineering has sent representatives on at least three inspection trips.  It has contracts with several water districts, including the MWD.  HDR is also a major donor to several water board members, some of whom voted to approve HDR's most recent MWD contract in August 2013.

"Going on these trips from a lobbyist’s perspective is really an opportunity to have exclusive quality time with decision makers who will be deciding how to award contracts in the millions to their employers," said Feng. 

The California State Auditor criticized MWD’s inspection trips in a 2004 report. The report suggested the trips "may not be the most cost effective way to educate the public on [the MWD's] operations." It also questioned why family members and friends were going on the trips when the intention is to educate members of the general public and elected officials. 

The report noted there was nothing in the district’s policy "to ensure that guests on field inspection trips are appropriate and relevant."

MWD general manager Kightlinger said it’s not up to him to tell board members who should go on the trips. 

"We really don’t tell our member agencies who they should invite. We tell them to please select members of the community you want to educate," said Kightlinger.

Kightlinger also dismissed any suggestion these trips are luxurious junkets, noting that on some outings guests spend hours on chartered buses driving through the desert, and stay in dorm rooms owned by the MWD.