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West Basin water district board member pleads guilty to embezzlement

A board member at the West Basin Municipal Water District was sentenced Monday to 180 days in jail after pleading guilty in an embezzlement case involving his agency and a local nonprofit group.

Ronald Smith, 55, pleaded guilty to one felony count of conflict of interest and, according to prosecutors, admitted that he used funds from his agency to pay for his family’s expenses, including rent, boat repairs, and his children’s tuition and dance lessons.

As part of his plea deal, Smith agreed to resign from the water district board and provided a $10,000 check to his agency as partial reimbursement. Prosecutors, in turn, dismissed six other counts against Smith: four counts of perjury and two counts of misappropriation of funds.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Thomas Sokolov placed Smith on five years’ probation and ordered him to pay an additional $7,765 in restitution to the water agency, which serves Malibu, West Hollywood, Culver City and much of the South Bay. Smith’s attorney, Robert Ernenwein, declined to comment.

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Smith, the water board’s treasurer, was arrested two months ago as part of a larger case targeting Rob Katherman, a former aide to Los Angeles City Councilman Curren Price. Katherman, 68, and his wife Marilyn, 65, were charged last month with two felony counts of misappropriation of public funds. Both have said they are innocent.

Prosecutors contend that the Kathermans, while running the nonprofit Adopt a Stormdrain Foundation, used organization funds to cover Smith’s financial obligations.

While entering his plea, Smith said he worked with Katherman to funnel money from the water district to Adopt a Stormdrain, a Torrance nonprofit group that focuses on preventing pollution of the region’s waterways and ocean, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Dana Aratani. Checks from the nonprofit later paid for tuition for Smith’s son and two daughters, along with other family expenses, prosecutors said.

Katherman attorney Mark Werksman said his client had no knowledge that Smith was using the funds for improper purposes. Had he been aware of Smith’s activities, Katherman “never would have issued those checks,” Werksman said in an e-mail.

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“It is unfortunate that in his desperation to get out of jail, Ron Smith has lied about Robert Katherman’s knowledge of Ron Smith’s illegal theft of Adopt a Stormdrain Foundation funds,” Werksman said.

An arraignment hearing for the Kathermans is scheduled Oct. 1.

Smith’s resignation from the water board took effect Monday. Donald L. Dear, the board’s president, said Monday’s guilty plea “should not detract from the hard work” being done by the agency and its employees.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

Follow @DavidZahniser for what’s happening at Los Angeles City Hall


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