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County Grand Jury Begins Inquiry Into Contractor’s Activities

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Ventura County Grand Jury has launched an inquiry into the activities of contractor Tom A. Staben, already under investigation by county, state and federal authorities on suspicion of illegal dumping and harming the environment.

Two environmental activists confirmed Friday they were summoned before the grand jury this week and were asked an array of questions about the Somis-based contractor and his dealings with the county’s Public Works Agency.

John Buse of the Environmental Defense Center and Russ Baggerly of the Ventura County Environmental Coalition declined to elaborate on what they discussed during their meeting with the grand jury subcommittee, saying that doing so would be improper.

Buse repeated only that he is concerned the Staben case has exposed major problems with the county’s contract-bidding policies, and that he would like to see it result in reforms.

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Environmentalists have said the county should not continue awarding contracts to Staben because he has been repeatedly cited for illegal dumping this decade, among other violations. The county has awarded Staben $2.6 million in storm-cleanup contracts this decade.

“The puzzling thing here is that public works is citing Mr. Staben, and yet they are still doing business with him,” Buse said. “I think there is at least an appearance of conflict of interest there, and I would like to see an independent group take a look at this issue.”

Public Works Director Art Goulet said he had not been asked to speak before the grand jury, nor to his knowledge had anyone in his office. But Goulet welcomed any inquiry into Staben and the contractor’s relationship with his office.

Goulet said he had a long conversation Thursday with investigators from the district attorney’s office, which is conducting its own probe of Staben. Goulet said he has offered them the run of his records.

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“Anything that we have that they are interested in, they can look at,” he said.

Michael Frawley, the deputy district attorney in charge of environmental cases, declined to comment on whether the grand jury inquiry is in any way related to the district attorney’s investigation, noting that such comment would be illegal.

Staben and his attorney could not be reached for comment.

In addition to handing down criminal indictments, the county’s grand jury also functions as a government watchdog, issuing recommendations on policies and programs that need improvement.

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A final report on the panel’s recommendations is due July 1.

Because the current grand jury is just a few days from finishing its term, Buse said he did not know how detailed a look it was taking into Staben’s activities this decade. But he said he would present his concerns to the next grand jury if needed.

“We’ll just resurrect it if we have to,” he said.

Staben, 44, has attracted interest from a variety of government agencies, including the FBI, for his work as flood-control contractor.

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The probes focus on allegations that Staben dug out sensitive Ventura River habitat to obtain raw materials he needed to complete a county flood-control project, and that Staben has been dumping everything from dirt to refrigerators illegally on land he owns along the Arroyo Simi in Somis.

Digging in the Ventura River, which was authorized by county officials, may have violated the federal Clean Water Act. It may also have violated endangered species laws because the waterway is said to be used by migrating steelhead trout.

Ventura city officials are also pursuing criminal sanctions against Staben’s firm for violating city codes at the Ventura Beach RV resort, a 19-acre trailer park he owns at the junction of the Ventura River and Ventura Freeway.

The corporation, Ventura Beach RV Resort Inc., previously pleaded no contest last year to a charge of illegally storing 5,000 square feet of concrete blocks in the area, and is already on three years’ probation.

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