It wasn’t even Christmas, and Fresno County agencies were already getting some pretty nice gifts. Donations to the county aren’t all that uncommon and can range vastly in value.
Most county officials were glad when Table Mountain Rancheria paid $1 million to help fund the district attorney’s identity-theft program; American Ambulance offered up a surplus ambulance valued at $17,000 to the Sheriff’s Office; and Brooke Ashjian, a Fresno Unified trustee who owns a paving business, provided $5,700 in surplus office furnishings to replace dilapidated furniture in the DA’s office.
But to Supervisor Debbie Poochigian, the last two donations raised red flags. Ashjian’s furniture donation in May was troubling, since he had pending business before the board. After the donation was approved by the board, Ashjian won a $1.4 million contract from supervisors for road improvements through his business, Seal Rite Paving, as the lowest responsive bidder, according to county officials. And his variance for a carport at his home, which had been opposed by the Planning Commission, was approved in November by supervisors after his neighbors said it was an improvement to the neighborhood and that none of them opposed it. The supervisors’ vote to approve the variance was 4-0, with Poochigian abstaining.
Poochigian said her concerns had nothing to do with the fact that Ashjian had supported Lisa Smittcamp in the DA’s race, while she was an ally of incumbent Elizabeth Egan, who lost to Smittcamp. She said she was unaware in May that Ashjian was a Smittcamp supporter.
“I didn’t know he was a big supporter of hers and it makes absolutely no difference to me; that’s past history,” Poochigian said. “I am trying to do something to make our board better and our policies better.”
We’re accepting a substantial gift from someone and we are also looking at requests for proposals (for contracts) for those people.
Debbie Poochigian, chairwoman, Fresno County Board of Supervisors
Poochigian said she is concerned about certain departments accepting gifts, including the district attorney’s office, which has to prosecute people. Any donations should come with a “cooling-off period” of one year between the time of a donation and the county business the donor has pending, she argued.
Donors and recipients see it differently. Ashjian says that he thought he was doing the county a favor – not looking for favors – when he offered surplus office furniture to the DA’s office. It came from a former insurance office building he bought earlier this year that came stocked with extra furniture. After a visit to Smittcamp’s office, when he caught sight of the aging inventory of chairs and desks, Ashjian made what he thought was a goodwill gesture.
When the donation was discussed in May, Jeff Dupras, an assistant district attorney, told supervisors that a colleague had a broken desk drawer. When it was finally pried open, it revealed a 1977 directory of district attorney’s employees.
Ashjian’s offer to replace aging office furnishings for free was a great opportunity, Dupras told the board. But even so, “conflicts of interest are on our minds all the time,” he said.
Conflicts of interest are on our minds all the time.
Jeff Dupras, assistant district attorney
During the same May meeting, supervisors approved donations from the Friends of the Library and a donation of books from a television station.
The Table Mountain donation was made to fill a need, said Dan Casas, lawyer for the tribe. Casas said there are significant paperwork requirements for identity-theft prosecutions, and staffing is specifically needed to target identity theft.
“There was a void in prosecution of identity theft,” he said. “You have to have dedicated deputies and district attorneys, and the DA’s office didn’t have the money.”
The issue of donations surfaced again this month when American Ambulance donated a surplus ambulance to the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.
The contract giving operating rights in Fresno County to American Ambulance will be up for competitive bids late next year, and that’s cutting it close for a donation under a proposed one-year “cooling-off period,” said Poochigian, the only supervisor opposing the donation.
But Tom Gattie, Fresno County’s assistant sheriff, said the ambulance is much-needed to store supplies that can be driven immediately to an event where those supplies are needed.
He said the ambulance has 250,000 miles on it and would save the sheriff’s office from having to buy a different vehicle or an equipment trailer.
American Ambulance donated three surplus ambulances. The others went to the Hanford police and fire departments, general manager Todd Valeri said.
“We were retiring out our Kings County fleet, and we put notice out to several public safety organizations that they were available,” he said. “We want to support our first responders because they support us. We interact with these agencies every day, and we realize resources can be scarce.”
But Valeri said he understands Poochigian’s caution.
“She always handles things that way and I’m not surprised she would ask these kinds of questions,” he said. “That’s just good government.”
Poochigian said she doesn’t want donations to be an influence when it comes to deciding future vendor contracts. She said a policy will be considered by supervisors early next year.
But other supervisors said they thought that just having the discussion in a public setting qualified as government transparency, and that her efforts to establish a “cooling-off period” three times had failed to gain traction.
Supervisor Andreas Borgeas said American Ambulance was offering a donation that would benefit the community.
“I don’t think anyone is under the impression there is any unfair dealing,” he said. “I feel uncomfortable rejecting a gift before we have a (cooling-off) policy in place.”
Supervisor Buddy Mendes said county supervisors were transparent by talking about the ambulance donation, and that “justifies us taking the donation. We acknowledge that they are giving us this ambulance.”
There is no indication that anyone was doing anything wrong, said David Schecter, a former Fresno State public administration ethics professor and now vice provost at California State University, Bakersfield. Poochigian shouldn’t abstain in voting after voicing such strong opinions, he said.
Schecter, however, does suggest that Poochigian’s one-year “cooling-off period” is somewhat unusual and sounds similar to a measure approved in the U.S. Congress to keep Congressional representatives-turned-lobbyists from enlisting help from other congressional members immediately after they leave elective office for lobbying jobs.
He said such a “cooling-off” measure would be difficult for the county to enforce.
If we are going to be swayed by the donation of an ambulance with 250,000 miles on it, then we’re in pretty bad shape.
Buddy Mendes, Fresno County supervisor
As for Ashjian, Schecter suggested that despite his goodwill, he should consider donating to organizations where board members may not think his donation was a problem and he wouldn’t endure such scrutiny.
“Just don’t give the impression that you’re giving a giant Christmas gift,” Schecter said.
The American Ambulance donation, he said, seems appropriate since the county was already considering an alternative to the ambulance donation and would have required county funding to do it.
Said Mendes: “If we are going to be swayed by the donation of an ambulance with 250,000 miles on it, then we’re in pretty bad shape.”