Questions of Conflict Swirl Around Yorba Linda Water District

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Steve Conklin, acting general manager of the Yorba Linda Water District, has helped to steer more than $200,000 in contract work to Pasadena-based Tetra Tech, his former employer and a company in which he owned up to $10,000 in stock.

The contracts have raised conflict of interest questions from Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies and an author of the state’s Political Reform Act.

“The real question to him is why was [Conklin] doing it? Didn’t he know he had a potential conflict of interest? Even if it did not meet the threshold, he should have known better,” Stern said about Conklin’s role in granting contracts to Tetra Tech.

Conklin said he was employed for several years at Tetra Tech until being laid off in July 2008. He became a contract employee at the water district in August 2008 and was hired as district engineer in January 2009. He held stock in the company until last year.

Almost immediately after being hired, Conklin sat on an evaluation committee to determine the highest-ranking bidder on a contract to study a pump station project. The committee gave Tetra Tech the highest ranking among four bidders. Conklin appeared before the board on Feb. 7, 2009, to recommend that Tetra Tech receive the $45,675 contract, according to meeting minutes.

When the follow-up contract to design the pump station project came before the board later that year, Tetra Tech was the lowest bidder. But the board instead awarded the $469,593 contract to Colorado-based MWH Americas.

At the time, MWH Americas employed the son of then board Vice President William R. Mills as a marketing director. William R. Mills voted for the contract and cast two votes as board president in 2010 to increase the contract amount to a total of $587,027.

MWH Americas this year promoted the son, Eric Mills, to vice president overseeing the company’s Southwest regional operations, including the Yorba Linda Water District. His father no longer serves on the district’s board.

Stern said Mills’ vote on the MWH Americas contract wouldn’t be a legal conflict; it would apply only if Eric Mills was a dependent child. But there could be an ethical issue if Mills’ son is a high-ranking official at the company and derived additional compensation from the contract award, Stern said.

During the meeting when the vote was taken, William R. Mills said he could vote on the contract because “neither he nor his son would receive any compensation should the District award this contract to MWH,” according to the meeting minutes.

Eric Mills said he never approached his father about the pump station vote.

“We’ve never been in the habit of talking shop, other than doing a project around the house trying to fix something,” Eric Mills said. “Our careers never really overlapped that much.”

Despite missing out on the pump station contract, Conklin directed another contract in 2010 to Tetra Tech for emergency repairs on a water pipeline. The board approved the contract along with several change orders that year and 2011 totaling $167,380, meeting minutes show.

Despite Conklin’s deep connections to Tetra Tech, it is unlikely that he violated any of the state’s laws that govern conflict of interest issues.

For example, the state has a revolving-door restriction, whereby for one year former government officials are not permitted to lobby the public agencies where they worked on behalf of a private company. The door, however, doesn’t revolve the other way.

According to Richard Hertz, a spokesman for the state Fair Political Practices Commission, Conklin is exempt from the conflict of interest laws when “all income from the employer was received by or accrued to the public official prior to the time he or she became a public official; the income was received in the normal course of the previous employment; and there was no expectation by the public official at the time he or she assumed office of renewed employment with the former employer.”

Conklin is also exempt from the stock holdings conflict if the company receives more than $2.5 million in revenue annually, the stock’s value is less than $25,000 and the awarded contract is less than $500,000, according to FPPC regulations.

Tetra Tech’s annual revenue is in the billions of dollars, the company’s quarterly financial reports show.

Conklin said he sees how others might perceive his recommendations to steer contracts to Tetra Tech as conflicts of interest. Nonetheless, he insisted, such perceptions are false.

“Our attorney’s determination was that awarding Tetra Tech a $100,000 contract wasn’t going to do anything for their stock,” Conklin said.

The same goes for MWH Americas and William R. Mills’ vote, Conklin said.

“MWH is an international conglomerate, and the size of this project was relatively small to their overall billings,” Conklin said.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek

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