Former Baldwin Park officials conspired in Rialto water district election scheme, DOJ alleges

A federal investigation into corruption in Baldwin Park has revealed that a former councilman allegedly agreed to help the city’s  deposed police chief obtain a seat on a Rialto-based water district board in exchange for promises that the councilman would be hired to a high-paying administrative post in the district.

The alleged quid pro quo scheme between then-Councilman Ricardo Pacheco and ousted Police Chief Michael Taylor was revealed in documents unsealed by the U.S. Department of Justice on Friday, Oct. 7, in its case against former San Bernardino County Planning Commissioner Gabriel Chavez.

Chavez has agreed to plead guilty to a federal bribery charge for acting as an intermediary for payoffs from cannabis companies to Pacheco. The FBI raided Chavez’s home in October 2020, and Chavez resigned as a planning commissioner about two weeks later.

Robert Tafoya, Baldwin Park city attorney and legal counsel for the West Valley Water District in Rialto. (Photo by Walt Mancini/Pasadena Star-News/File)

The DOJ bribery probe is ongoing, but neither Pacheco nor Taylor has been charged in connection with activities related to the West Valley Water District, which serves 82,000 customers in the communities of Bloomington, Colton, Fontana, Rialto, parts of unincorporated areas in San Bernardino, and Jurupa Valley in Riverside County.

In an unrelated case, Pacheco agreed to plead guilty in June 2021 to a federal bribery charge for accepting $37,900 from an undercover police officer working as an FBI informant in return for voting in favor of the Baldwin Park Police Association’s 2018 contract with the city. Under his plea agreement, Pacheco agreed to continue cooperating in the federal investigation.

The late Clifford Young Sr., former West Valley Water District board president and director.(Photo by Joe Nelson, The Sun/SCNG)

Taylor, who was fired as Baldwin Park’s police chief in September 2016 but rehired a year later, indeed captured a seat on the water district’s board of directors with fundraising help from Pacheco. And Taylor subsequently engineered the hiring of Pacheco to a newly created assistant general manager’s post paying nearly $190,000 a year, the DOJ alleges.

Reached by telephone and provided a copy of the DOJ document via email, Taylor — identified as “Person 2” in the document — did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

 

SCNG investigation

The revelations follow an exhaustive yearlong investigation by the Southern California News Group that began in 2019 and included a review of more than 3,000 pages of financial documents and hundreds of pages of court records.

The investigation uncovered myriad problems within the West Valley Water District, including the employment of consultants without contracts, hiring managers and consultants with dubious backgrounds and legal difficulties, and the spending of more than $740,000 to settle lawsuits with former employees. The findings were later confirmed by a California State Controller’s Office audit.

Plan hatched

It was in July 2017, when Pacheco and Taylor met at Baldwin Park City Hall, that they hatched their plan. Taylor told Pacheco he planned to run for a seat on the West Valley Water District’s board of directors, but needed his help, which Pacheco took to mean fundraising, according to the Justice Department.

Taylor told Pacheco the water district had job openings, and that if he helped get him elected he would try to get him a job there. “Specifically, (Taylor) said that once he got elected to the Water District’s Board, ‘we’ll get you in,’ ” the DOJ stated.

Pacheco told federal investigators he collected $20,500 in monetary contributions for Taylor’s campaign for the water board seat, representing almost the entirety of the $21,797 in contributions Taylor received. Most all the contributions Pacheco secured came from individuals with business before the city of Baldwin Park, according to the Justice Department document.

For example, his California Education Coalition political action committee contributed $7,000 to Taylor’s campaign that came from a marijuana company owner, according to the Justice Department affidavit and Taylor’s campaign finance reports.

About a month later, in October 2017, Taylor sent Pacheco a text message saying, “Okay, we are making our big push and I really need 5K bro. Otherwise I’m completely broke this week and we are done,” meaning that the success of Taylor’s campaign depended on Pacheco’s help with fundraising, according to the Justice Department.

The following day, Pacheco solicited South Gate developer Michael Galanakis for a $1,500 donation to Taylor’s campaign, according to the DOJ affidavit. Galanakis did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

Pacheco’s PAC also contributed about $4,800 of in-kind contributions to Taylor’s 2017 campaign, which was used for, among other things, “hit piece” mailers against the opponents of Taylor and then water district board President Clifford Young, identified in the document as “Person 5, an elected official.”

The hit pieces, according to the Justice Department, were allegedly created by Baldwin Park City Attorney Robert Tafoya, identified as “Person 1” in the court filings and described as having “served as the Baldwin Park City Attorney since in or around December 2013.” The DOJ noted that Tafoya was seeking a contract for legal services with the water district at the time.

Along with Pacheco’s employment contract, one of Taylor’s first orders of business after his election was nominating Tafoya as the district’s new legal counsel. Tafoya was hired and still serves as an independent consultant providing legal services to the district, said agency spokeswoman Socorro Pantaleon.

The in-kind contributions from Pacheco’s PAC went undisclosed by Taylor’s election committee in an effort to conceal Pacheco’s agreement with Taylor, according to the unsealed documents.

As part of Taylor’s demands, the DOJ said, he told Pacheco that his hiring at the West Valley Water District also was contingent on Pacheco persuading the Baldwin Park City Council to rehire Taylor as police chief.

Taylor wins seat

On Nov. 7, 2017, Taylor was elected to the West Valley Water District’s board of directors. The next day, Pacheco sent Taylor a text pitching the position he wanted with the district: “Assistant GM.” Taylor responded, “Really? We will talk if my contract (for police chief) goes through,” according to the Justice Department document.

The City Council had fired Taylor as Baldwin Park police chief in September 2016 without cause. Council members later said his firing came amid an investigation into allegations that several Latino police officers were passed over for promotions, but an investigation found no evidence of discrimination.

According to the Justice Department, Pacheco — working to make good on his part of the deal — pressed a councilwoman to vote in favor of a new employment contract for Taylor, which also included a clause that he could be fired only if he were convicted of a felony.

Pacheco texted the unnamed councilwoman, saying, “I just need your support,” “Plus he just won in a large water district” and “Think about the possibilities,” referring to the potential financial benefits Pacheco and the councilwoman could reap if Taylor was rehired, according to the Justice Department.

In November 2017, the City Council voted 3-2 to rehire Taylor, this time at nearly $22,000 more than what he made when he was let go. Councilwomen Susan Rubio and Cruz Baca voted against the appointment.

About a month after the West Valley election, a victory celebration was held on Dec. 7, 2017, at the Sierra Lakes Golf Club in Fontana, where Taylor and Young, a political ally of Taylor’s, told Pacheco they would make good on their promise to provide him with a position at the water district, according to the DOJ document.

On March 29, 2018, the water district’s board of directors, on a 4-0 vote with Taylor abstaining, approved Pacheco’s employment contract as assistant general manager, which called for a base salary of $189,592 and his own vehicle.

The minutes from that board meeting confirmed that Pacheco’s hiring was approved during closed session, and that Taylor had recused himself from voting. The Justice Department said Taylor abstained to conceal the quid pro quo arrangement with Pacheco.

Just more than a year later, in May 2019, Pacheco was placed on administrative leave for undisclosed reasons, then fired in November 2019. Water district officials never confirmed whether Pacheco’s leave and subsequent forced resignation was in connection with the federal corruption probe.

Pacheco’s separation agreement with the district allowed him to walk away with a severance package that included nine months of pay but no benefits.

Water district responds

The latest revelations in the sweeping federal corruption probe in several Southern California cities comes months after Taylor and Young resigned from the water district’s board of directors, Taylor on July 27 and Young on Jan. 3.

Young died in August.

Pantaleon, the agency’s spokeswoman, said in an email Tuesday that Taylor did not have a separation agreement with the district.

“We are deeply disturbed by this information and will remain vigilant in monitoring the case,” she said. “Our current board and staff priority is in protecting the ratepayers and providing safe and high-quality water.”

Pantaleon said that the water district is not involved in the federal investigation.

Staff writers Jason Henry and Scott Schwebke contributed to this report.