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Water district roiled by bitter infighting and criminal charges against general manager

A woman's image is reflected in a glass door.
Board member Leticia Vasquez is reflected in the front doors of the old Central Basin Municipal Water District building in Commerce.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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For years, the Central Basin Municipal Water District was seen as a poster child for government dysfunction: State auditors slammed the agency for questionable contracting practices, poor leadership and violating the law. Competing lawsuits accused officials of corruption and harassment, while the district’s bond rating plummeted.

Then in 2020, as some California lawmakers sought to dissolve the district’s board of directors and place it in receivership, the Commerce-based water wholesaler hired a self-described “turnaround specialist” to reform the district, which serves almost 2 million residents in southeast Los Angeles. The troubled district was finally entering a new age, some hoped.

But those hopes have now faded as the district finds itself in yet another major scandal.

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General Manager Alejandro “Alex” Rojas — the man who was supposed to rehabilitate the district — now faces charges of money laundering, soliciting a bribe and grand theft embezzlement. The charges, which were filed in August, stem from his days as superintendent of La Puente’s Bassett Unified School District from 2014-17, and not from his work at the district.

Rojas has denied any wrongdoing.

Poor leadership, a lack of planning and widespread mismanagement have threatened the long-term financial health of the Central Basin Municipal Water District, which serves 2 million people in southeast Los Angeles County, according to a new state audit.

The charges have stoked bitter infighting among board members and complicated decision-making at one of Southern California’s major water wholesalers. Some district residents are concerned about the allegations against Rojas and other officials.

“There’s this pervasive culture in southeast L.A. politics where, in my view, profit-driven and special-interest folks take advantage; they see these cities and these agencies as a way to help their businesses and to serve themselves,” said Juan Muñoz-Guevara, 25, of Lynwood.

“In some of these southeast cities, people are working paycheck to paycheck, just trying to make ends meet, and with these smaller agencies, you trust that the people elected to them are going to be doing right, and running the agency right,” he said. “And these people understand that and use that.”

At a recent board meeting, accusations of lying, mismanagement and alleged crimes flew as two members voiced concerns about Rojas remaining in his position even as he faces corruption charges.

Board members Leticia Vasquez and Martha Camacho-Rodriguez slammed Rojas and other board members, saying the water district lacked adequate financial controls or transparency, and said they feared public money may be at risk.

“I’m concerned that Alex Rojas also serves as the primary person on the district’s finances, the treasurer. He should not be acting as the general manager and the treasurer,” Vasquez said. She called for Rojas to be placed on administrative leave.

Camacho-Rodriguez called for a forensic audit to be performed on the district’s finances.

Seven work days into Ron Beilke’s job at the Central Basin Municipal Water District, the agency’s governing board placed an item on its next meeting agenda.

“I can’t believe that anything at our agency at this time is clean, not while he’s had two years of handling our books,” Camacho-Rodriguez said.

Rojas, who holds a doctorate of education from USC, insisted that the agency’s management and finances are in order and that proper procedures are being followed. He also said that improvements in the district’s bond ratings during his tenure have “saved the taxpayers a lot of money.”

Prosecutors allege that in 2015 and 2016 — when Rojas served as Bassett Unified’s superintendent — he schemed to divert more than $1.4 million in public money by approving invoices for work that was never done. He was charged along with Luis Rojas, the chief executive of Del Terra, a company that was hired to oversee construction projects for the school district. The two men aren’t related.

“Illegally diverting voter-approved bond money from schools not only deprives our children of already scarce resources but also diminishes the public’s trust in and support for our educational institutions,” Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón said when announcing the charges.

The pair are scheduled to be arraigned on March 15.

News of the corruption charges troubled Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), who co-authored the bill that would have placed the district in receivership more than 10 years ago.

“I am deeply concerned by the allegations facing the general manager of Central Basin,” he said in a statement. “This is just the latest in a long line of issues facing Central Basin Water District and threatening their credibility. We need to be able to trust that our local water agencies have the community’s best interests at heart.”

In an email to The Times, Craig Missakian, Alex Rojas’ attorney, said his client was “caught in the crossfire” of a 2018 investigation report written by the school district’s general counsel, Francisco Leal, targeting Luis Rojas and his company, adding, “there is nothing to substantiate the charges.” He said the unfounded charges are a “political hit piece masquerading as a criminal complaint.”

In an email, Luis Rojas called the district attorney’s case “frivolous” and alleged that Leal’s complaint was based on “rumor and speculation.”

“Had the DA’s office done its own homework — rather than simply taking Mr. Leal’s word — they would have seen that the charges are without merit,” Luis Rojas said in the email, which Missakian sent to The Times. He pointed out that a judge in a related civil case against his company reviewed the fraud allegations and dismissed them, and said he is “confident that the same will occur in the criminal case.”

Missakian said Alex Rojas “adamantly denies the central allegation in the criminal case — that he took part in a pay-to-play scheme with a contractor … and looks forward to clearing his name.”

Missakian said because the case has not affected the work he does for the district in any way, Rojas “sees no reason to resign pending the outcome of his case, which he believes will ultimately be decided in his favor.” Two credit rating agencies “have reviewed the district’s operations and finances and gave it a clean bill of health,” the lawyer said.

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At least one activist remains concerned.

“Why is he still operating as GM of Central Basin when he is under indictment?” said Charming Evelyn, chair of the water committee for the Sierra Club’s Angeles Chapter. “This is very highly unusual, and he should be removed.”

Some of the fiercest criticism of Rojas has come from Vasquez, who is no stranger to political clashes. In 2007, Vasquez — along with other Lynwood City Council members and then-Mayor Louis Byrd — were voted out of office in a recall after years of investigations, corruption allegations and a proposal for an NFL stadium.

Even before Rojas was charged, Vasquez sued the water district alleging that Rojas, general counsel Robert Baker, board President Arturo Chacon and then-board member Robert Apodaca had violated her civil rights.

The complaint says that because Vasquez is a “whistleblower who publicly disclosed a multitude of wrongdoing and corruption at Central Basin these men have conspired together to stop her from publicly speaking and otherwise disclosing illegal, improper, unreasonable, immoral and unethical activities.”

In an email, Baker said that Central Basin “will defend this matter and are confident we will prevail.”

Chacon declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Among other claims, Vasquez alleges that Rojas and others bullied her, devised a scheme to reduce her pay, deactivated her official email account and wrongly censured her. She said there have also been other incidents of intimidation.

In the lawsuit, Vasquez alleged a “physical assault” by fellow board member Apodaca during a 2020 meeting. In a video of the incident, Apodaca is seen standing from his seat and grabbing and pulling Vasquez’s arm as he reached for the gavel.

Apodaca could not be reached by phone or email, but in court documents, the district has denied all of Vasquez’s allegations.

Missakian called the lawsuit and the claims of rights violations frivolous.

“Nobody, least of all Dr. Rojas, has prevented Ms. Vasquez from speaking her mind, as her countless public statements — at board meetings, by email, on YouTube, and otherwise — clearly demonstrate,” Missakian said.


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