Last week, Orange County's Legislative Delegation sent a letter urging the California Coastal Commission to approve Poseidon Water LLC's proposed desalination facility in Huntington Beach. Signed by 10 state politicians including Sharon Quirk-Silva, Tom Daly and Allan Mansoor, the letter demonstrated bipartisan support for the nearly $1 billion project.
But questions remain as to whether public officials are considering the venture based on its merits, or the money and power surrounding it. According to CalAccess, a website operated by the California Secretary of State, Poseidon has spent more than $1 million since 2001 lobbying state legislators on desalination-related issues. Critics say Poseidon's political spending, combined with attempts to enter into confidentiality agreements with water districts away from public view, is a sign of the plan's flaws, which include higher rates, and potential harm to marine life."It's about increasing corporate profits at the public expense without any public knowledge. That's how they operate," said longtime critic Debbie Cook. "They influence legislators and they do it without engaging the public at all. We're just the fleas on their back."
Poseidon's cost estimates have increased over the years by hundreds of millions of dollars. In April, the Coastal Commission sent Poseidon a letter stating the company had provided incomplete information in its application for a coastal development permit. Such hiccups, critics like Cook say, make it difficult for the general public to be properly informed about the project. "Everything Poseidon says is twisted," she said. "They're a moving target, always."
A plan to purchase Poseidon water is currently being mulled over by the Orange County Water District (OCWD), which last month voted unanimously to study the economic feasibility of the proposal. The board of directors also voted to extend an existing confidentiality agreement between the two entities.
From Poseidon's perspective, it's a good relationship: two of the ten politicians occupying the OCWD dais are close Poseidon allies. Director Stephen Sheldon, is a former paid Poseidon consultant and President Shawn Dewane chairs CalDesal, an organization which employs lobbyists to advocate on behalf of the desalination industry. Two other OCWD directors, Cathy Green and Denis Bilodeau have in recent years accepted between them $3,000 in Poseidon campaign contributions.
But having money isn't the only thing working in Poseidon's favor, the company also uses clever tactics to spend it.
A peek at the OCTaxPAC website shows Poseidon VP Scott Maloni sits on the board of directors. During the fall elections, Poseidon donated $30,000 to the political action committee, which in turn donated $37,500 to another committee known as Atlas, which was hell bent on smearing Poseidon critic and Huntington Beach Council candidate Jill Hardy. Atlas distributed misleading mailers accusing Hardy of child endangerment while working as a school teacher for the Huntington School District as well as accusing her brother of being a sex offender.
Poseidon has also benefited from the services of more than one paid consultant sitting in a position of public power. The Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD) is currently the only agency in Orange County to have expressed strong interest in purchasing Poseidon water. Whether this interest is influenced by the fact that former SMWD Director Roger Faubel also served as a paid Poseidon consultant is an issue that's open to interpretation. In a recent phone interview Faubel told the Weekly there was no conflict-of-interest during his years as a Poseidon consultant and an elected official, and that, per the advice of his lawyers, he always recused himself from voting on agenda items involving his employer. However, minutes examined by the Weekly show this wasn't true, and that on at least one occasion, Faubel publicly voted on a Poseidon item.
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Faubel resigned from the district in April sighting a need to focus on his growing consulting firm. But with a vacant seat needing to be filled, the SMWD eschewed the voice of the people and appointed a replacement--Justin McCusker--who incidentally also serves on OCTaxPAC's board of directors (according to OCTaxPAC President Carolyn Cevecche, McCusker stepped down from the committee upon his appointment to SMWD.)
Politicians who simultaneously serve public and private masters aren't always engaged in illegal activity. But in the case of Poseidon's consultants, Cook says the spirit of the law is flouted, and the integrity of the system is undermined. "They continue to sit on these boards and influence people. Whether it's at a meeting or not, it doesn't matter. They eat together, they go to conferences together. They get so many opportunities to influence," Cook said.