The officials’ phones often rang late at night or after meetings. It was the early 2000s, and the Otay Water District was roiled by scandal, by accusations of mismanagement, bribery, fraud and self-dealing.
What followed was never good.
Sometimes came only the sound of a single kiss. A warning, police said. The kiss of death.
Sometimes came an ominous message. Rap music, blaring the same threat: Come on, motherfucker, come on.
When agency attorneys investigated, the answer they uncovered sounded like the kicker to a campfire horror story: The calls had been coming from inside — from the phone of one of the district’s own board members.
The conflict typified the dark days at what could otherwise be an unremarkable agency with a routine task. But even a decade later, the Otay Water District is hardly unremarkable. It’s proven that safely delivering water to 206,000 people from Otay Mesa to Jamul isn’t always routine — though its customers may wish it was.
Across the county, more than 20 public agencies like Otay play a key role in daily life. They’re middlemen who buy water from major suppliers and deliver it to the taps of homes and businesses. While big suppliers bring water here from sources far away, agencies like Otay maintain local pipes, read your meter and send you a bill every month or two.
They typically do that in relative obscurity. It’s why you may not have heard of agencies like the Rincon del Diablo Municipal Water District. But they are powerful entities. Otay has the authority to set and raise water rates. It determines how much developers must pay to connect new homes and offices to the water system. Its board has the discretion to spend millions of dollars on construction. Otay’s service territory includes large stretches of a Southern California rarity: Undeveloped land. And it controls the only local water connection between San Diego and Tijuana.
Otay hasn’t enjoyed the same obscurity as other water districts here. During the last decade, it’s delivered sewage to drinking water taps, tried to squelch criticism with legal action and endured costly litigation from its customers, employees and board members.
Though the board member implicated in those late-night calls a decade ago is gone, death threats have continued even today.
During the tumult’s peak in the early 2000s, a long-time board member got fed up and quit.
The board member, Mark Watton, lashed out against the district’s leadership, setting his sights on one man: Otay’s board president, a radio station owner named Jaime Bonilla trying to distance himself from accusations of favoritism engulfing the rest of the agency. In a letter to La Prensa San Diego, Watton said Bonilla was right in the middle of Otay’s problems.
“A (hopefully) short sad chapter in the Otay story, and what happens when public officials like these (including Mr. Bonilla) only want the position for their own ego, power and enrichment,” Watton wrote.
Now, 10 years after he resigned, Mark Watton runs the Otay Water District. He was the county’s highest-paid water official in 2010, in a job that gives him 71 days of leave annually. Add in weekends, and that’s almost half the year.
Watton today says that he had it wrong. Bonilla was wearing a wire, working as an informant for the FBI. Watton said he didn’t know Bonilla was trying to nab two other board members and a prominent Los Angeles lobbyist in a failed bribery sting. The case eventually fell apart.
“I didn’t have the full picture of what was going on,” Watton said.
Watton today answers to the district’s five-member board.
Its president, still, is Jaime Bonilla.
Something was terribly wrong with the water in Suite 109.
It was the summer of 2007. Business owners throughout the Fenton Business Center in Chula Vista’s Eastlake neighborhood reported that their tap water suddenly appeared yellow. Others said green. They all agreed the water was foul, so gross some were embarrassed to have customers use their restrooms.
The story of what went wrong there unfolds across hundreds of pages of court documents in a case that has stretched on for four years. It’s one of several lawsuits that have successfully targeted Otay as a defendant.
In the Fenton case, Otay blamed the problem on stagnant water in the newly constructed complex and told the businesses to flush their lines. It didn’t help. When the district came out and checked, they tested the water at a nearby fire hydrant, where it looked fine, not at the businesses’ taps. The color lingered for days.
The mysterious cause was unimaginably foul. Worse, it had been happening undetected for more than a year.
The district had been delivering partially treated sewage to drinking water taps since the park opened. People had been drinking and washing their hands in water contaminated by human waste. In lawsuits, they said they’d even brushed their teeth with it and suffered from countless gastrointestinal illnesses without knowing why.
No one noticed at first because the sewage was diluted with tap water. But that summer, Otay began buying more treated sewage to put in its purple pipe system — suitable for lawns but not people. After that, what came out of the businesses’ taps was 100 percent treated sewage.
The district had put a potable water meter on a pipe meant for irrigation and missed chances to catch it. Otay didn’t re-inspect the facility after discovering one of its inspectors had taken a bribe on another project from a contractor involved in the park’s construction.
A civil jury found Otay and other developers had acted negligently. Lawsuits have held the district liable for $3 million in damages, money Watton said will be covered by an insurer, not ratepayers. But the settlements are the latest to inflate Otay’s legal bills and leave a thick trail of paper in courthouse files over the last decade.
There came Tom Harron, the district’s former attorney, in 2001. He alleged that he was fired because he was white so the newly elected Bonilla could hire Latino friends. Two rival former Otay board members and a former auditor testified under oath in the case that they’d regularly heard Bonilla call Harron “El Gringo” or “white boy” — allegations he denied.
“With Mr. Bonilla,” one rival board member testified, “it is not enough to simply put a man out of his job. He wants to just completely annihilate this person.”
The district apologized and settled with Harron in 2007 for nearly $700,000.
There came a class of six employees (five white and one black), alleging racial discrimination as the cause of their departures around the same time as Harron. One rival board member said Bonilla had used a slur to describe the fired black employee. The former auditor, then suing the district, testified that shortly before winning his seat, Bonilla had said about Otay: “We got to get rid of all the gringos.” Bonilla denied that.
The district settled in 2007 for $371,000.
This case was terribly flimsy. And it carried echoes of the political retribution that had once clearly defined Otay’s dark days.
But this was March 2011, and an attorney for the Otay Water District was making a case for censure to the Chula Vista Ethics Board. One of the advisory group’s members, a businessman named Chris Shilling, had run unsuccessfully in November against an Otay board member, David Gonzalez Jr.
The election hadn’t been close. Gonzalez, the brother of Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, won easily after far outspending Shilling.
Shilling had taken his campaign against Gonzalez to Facebook, on a page with 46 followers. There, he called the district corrupt and accused Gonzalez of stealing campaign signs. They were baseless comments, hardly noteworthy during election season.
But they sure got the water district’s attention. Otay pursued legal action. Bonilla filed a complaint with the ethics board to get Shilling booted.
Bonilla didn’t do that on his own dime though. The district’s ratepayers paid for the agency’s attorney to work on the complaint, which purported to come from the agency’s board of directors. But the board hadn’t agreed to send it. Bonilla told the Union-Tribune that he, Gonzalez, Watton and an attorney had decided to.
Watton said the district got involved because Shilling had noted in campaign literature that he served on the ethics board, making his criticism carry more weight.
“If someone is just out making stuff up and lying to the public, that is of interest to the district,” Watton said. “We’re not corrupt.”
Bonilla later told the board that he’d pay for any litigation himself, according to meeting minutes. But he didn’t reimburse the district for its legal expenses.
When the agency’s attorney, Dan Shinoff, presented his case to the ethics board in March, he zeroed in on what he called Shilling’s malicious critique of Gonzalez and Bonilla. Shinoff, who’s paid $250 an hour by the district, appeared to be settling a campaign score. Talking to commissioners, he unfurled an inflated oratory filled with its own baseless accusations.
Shinoff tried to connect Shilling to an anonymous website that attacked Gonzalez. And yet Shinoff offered no proof it was Shilling’s site. Shinoff said the criticism was symptomatic of the country’s devolving political discourse.
“Somebody’s going to be a victim if we continue this in this society,” Shinoff told the board, noting the shooting rampage that had left six dead and 13 wounded in Tucson, Ariz. a few weeks earlier.
He said an ethics board member shouldn’t be allowed to make such attacks — not with so much at stake. A rebuke was absolutely necessary, he said.
“I urge you with my heart and with my soul for you to do the right thing,” he said. “I come from a family of concentration camp survivors. And I can tell you from a very personal perspective, permitting this sort of dialogue only leads to tragedy.”
The ethics board dismissed the complaint.
Customers in the Otay district often have little reason to complain.
They pay some of the county’s lowest water rates. In 2009, while other water districts told customers to cut back on their consumption or face penalties, Otay didn’t, saying its customers had already conserved.
But this August, customers went berserk. A standing-room-only crowd filled a mid-afternoon board meeting. They were furious about the district’s push to guarantee health care coverage for all current employees after they retire.
While other water agencies and government bodies are doing the opposite, Otay was about to increase its employees’ retirement benefits. The district had struggled to articulate a clear reason why.
The fight that day was between Otay leaders and the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, and it turned nasty. Just before voting, Bonilla said something that in any other district might’ve sounded unusual, which evoked memories of the chilling phone messages that he and other agency officials had received a decade earlier.
“You should see the emails we got, threats to our families,” Bonilla told the crowd. “It was motivated by this organization.”
Fixed-income retirees erupted in howls of protest, bringing the board’s discussion to a halt. Retirees were already upset about the retirement benefit boost, concerned it may impact water rates increasing faster than they said they could afford. Now it appeared that Bonilla was blaming death threats on the taxpayers association. “You’re going to lie! Shut up!” one bellowed.
Bonilla quickly clarified. The taxpayers association hadn’t actually convinced people to threaten board members, he said. They’d just misled the public and gotten people angry.
Two months later, Bonilla cited the anonymous threats again. This time, he was writing to the taxpayers association’s board, calling the group’s criticism unfounded, misleading and dangerous. Two threatening emails — “You are US enemies and deserve to die,” one said — were attached as evidence.
And just as Otay had done months earlier with Shilling, another public critic, the letter concluded with its own threat.
If the taxpayers association’s attack continued, Bonilla wrote, the district would sue.
Update: We originally wrote that Otay was targeted in the tainted-water lawsuit as a “plaintiff.” That’s been corrected to say “defendant.”
Rob Davis is a senior reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0529.
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