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Conklin traded integrity for money

Jeff Ackerman, Publisher

In a 14-month period from April 2003 through June of 2004, Bruce Conklin was paid more than $82,000 by the Nevada County Land Trust from the same money he voted to transfer to the Trust during his last official act as a Nevada County supervisor.

Conklin’s good friend, Lawrence Black, whom Conklin said he met at a Quaker meeting in the Bay Area some 25 years earlier, was paid more than $207,000 during that same period, according to Trust financial records released to the county last week.

And next Tuesday, Conklin wants you to return him that same board seat.

Since suggesting a month or so ago that Conklin should not be returned to office because he violated, at the very least, the intent of the state’s conflict of interest statutes, I’ve been threatened, picketed and have been asked to resign for dragging “poor Conklin through the mud.”

Today, I am more convinced than ever that Conklin threw himself and the integrity of his position as a member of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors into that mud because he needed the money.

In fact, I believe there is sufficient information to warrant an investigation by the grand jury, district attorney or attorney general to determine if Conklin violated Government Code Section 1090, the state’s conflict of interest law.

If it was “foreseeable” that Conklin could have gone to work for the Land Trust when he voted three months earlier to give the Trust more than a half-million dollars (and it certainly seems possible that it was, in fact, “foreseeable”), the county contract could be voided and the Trust asked to return the $508,000. If Conklin knew when he voted that he would eventually work for the Trust, he could be guilty of a felony and possibly jailed. That’s how serious this issue is.

The California Supreme Court has been very clear on the intent of Government Code Section 1090, which is to make certain that “every public officer be guided solely by the public interest, rather than by personal interest, when dealing with contracts in an official capacity,” wrote the state’s highest court. “Resulting in substantial forfeiture, this remedy provides public officials with a strong incentive to avoid conflict of interest situations scrupulously.”

How “scrupulous” was Conklin in avoiding the conflict of interest?

He wasn’t. As soon as he left office, he started working on securing a contract with the Trust to administer the $508,000 he almost single-handedly orchestrated the transfer of. A contract that would earn him twice as much money as he earned in his final year on the Board of Supervisors. In fact, Conklin started work with the Land Trust in March of 2003 without a formal contract, which he didn’t secure until June, according to records recently released by the Trust.

When he died in the spring of 2000, Auburn resident Dryden Wilson left more than $1.7 million to be split between Placer and Nevada counties. He was concerned about the rapid growth and wanted the counties to use the money to buy some land and protect it.

The Trust could have purchased a few acres of open space for $508,000 without paying Conklin $82,000 in administrative fees, or his contractor friend $207,000. And there would still have been enough money left to help the North Star House Foundation pay for an architectural assessment of the home, which is all the foundation wanted to do in the first place.

And that’s just what supervisors were discussing on the morning of Dec. 3, 2002 ” the day Conklin learned that he had officially lost his bid for re-election. According to the minutes from that Dec. 3 meeting, supervisors discussed how to spend Mr. Wilson’s money.

Several park district representatives were in attendance and there was some serious talk of giving a good chunk of it to both the Nevada County and Truckee Land Trusts to help those agencies buy and preserve open space, which is exactly what the trusts were established to do and what Mr. Wilson wanted done. A perfect match.

But after a lunch meeting at the Northridge Inn, attended by Conklin, Supervisors Barbara Green and Peter Van Zant (who was said to have occupied a separate booth to avoid an open meeting law violation) and Land Trust Executive Director Cheryl Belcher (a donor to Conklin’s election campaign), the board shifted gears and decided to give the money to the Trust in a contract that stipulated it was to be used mostly for restoring the historic Julia Morgan House at the North Star Mine, named after its architect, who also designed Hearst Castle. The board would later put the final touches on that contract during a special Christmas Eve meeting, despite the objections by the board’s own attorney, who eventually refused to sign the contract because it did not give the county an out. Perhaps Conklin knew that the incoming board would not have looked favorably on that contract or his subsequent financial involvement in it.

Three months later Conklin was “contracted” to manage that project for the Trust after being selected from more than a dozen other “bidders.” The Trust has yet to reveal what those other proposals were, saying only that Conklin was the “most qualified.”

The Nevada County Land Trust says it is “apolitical,” but its executive director and board treasurer (Ron Mathis) are listed as Conklin campaign donors.

The $508,000 was apparently tossed into a sea of cozy relationships, and what do we have to show for that money today?

The Julia Morgan House was essentially “red-tagged” by the county last week. In a letter to Trust Board President Andy Cassano, the county’s building director issued a cease and desist from any further work on the house. He demands that a roof-loading analysis be done with proper plans and permits and that plans and permits be submitted for any “current or planned” restoration work. Section 5 of the county contract with the Trust stipulates that “It shall be the NCLT’s responsibility to comply with all legal requirements of the project relating to permitting, construction, bidding, prevailing wage, or accessibility requirements.”

For his part, Conklin said recently that he “defends the decision of the Land Trust” to contract him. But it’s not the Land Trust that needs defending. It’s Conklin, whose integrity is in question here. Conklin put the Land Trust in this position by jeopardizing the trust of his office and the citizens he is supposed to serve.

As someone who has studied law, Conklin should have spent a bit more time reading up on Government Code Section 1090. In a 1983 opinion regarding a similar contract relationship in Riverside County, then-Attorney General John Van De Kamp concluded that “however devious and winding the chain may be which connects (them) with (it), if it can be followed and a connection made, the contract is void … both as repugnant to … public policy … and because the interest of the officer interferes with the unfettered discharge of his duty to the public.”

Conklin was intimately involved in the drafting of that contract calling for a project manager, a position he eventually secured. In fact, he was so involved that he argued with the county’s own attorney regarding the contract’s language.

Van De Kamp determined in that 1983 opinion (No. 82-1104 – April 28, 1983) that there doesn’t need to be willful dishonesty or fraud to violate 1090. “While no fraud or dishonesty may have been involved,” wrote Van De Kamp, “we are nonetheless satisfied that in so doing they participated, not in their personal capacities, but in their official ones … in the making of the contract. Inasmuch as the opportunity for that participation followed by such participation itself is the litmus test for determining whether the meaning of section 1090 is breached, we conclude that it was and that any contract created under such circumstances would be void.”

In its meeting today, the Board of Supervisors should ask the current county counsel to seek a similar opinion from the attorney general. It owes at least that much to the citizens of Nevada County and to the family of the late Dryden Wilson.

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Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears each Tuesday.