San Mateo County District Attorney Jim Fox announced last Wednesday that his office is bringing criminal charges against North Coast County Water District General Manager David Stevens.
The announcement was much anticipated in Pacifica, where the nine-month investigation into the water district and its manager has divided the community, with some people making public statements of support for Stevens and attacking the motives of the D.A.'s office.
"We will be filing a criminal complaint against Dave Stevens," Fox said to a group of reporters last Wednesday morning in Redwood City. "The complaint contains 12 counts, 11 felonies and one misdemeanor."
The felony counts involve the already publicized allegations that Stevens gave water district property to Chuck Gust (concrete water meter housing boxes) to be used at Gust's Pescadero estate. Chuck Gust is the son of Nick Gust, whose family in 1997 will celebrate 70 years of running Nick's in Rockaway Beach. The allegation is that Stevens gave Gust the district property and that no effort to pay for it was made until after the investigation began last spring, some eight months after the property was delivered to Gust's Vallemar home for eventual transport to Pescadero. Stevens and Gust refute the claim that there was any wrongdoing.
The criminal charges against Stevens also involve allegations that he gave himself pay raises without the board's approval and misused a district credit card.
"He will be charged with submitting false expense accounts, increasing his salary without action of the board, using a district credit card and purchasing a 'go-kart' in San Jose," said Fox, discussing some of the charges. Stevens has said that he did buy his son a go-kart on a district credit card, but immediately repaid the money to the district.
"He's also charged with giving away district property," Fox continued, referring to the Gust connection.
"And (there is) one charge of petty theft from the Quik Stop," Fox said, addressing the misdemeanor shoplifting charge. It is alleged that in March, Stevens walked away from the Quik Stop market on Crespi Drive with several bottles of Snapple and lunch items without paying for them. Stevens claims it was a simple oversight, but the allegation contends that he told the clerk who questioned him, "Do you know who I am?" The Pacifica Police were called and the incident was logged as a shoplifting offense. The misdemeanor charge has nothing to do with Stevens' work at the water district. All the felony charges are related to the NCCWD.
"I'm really incredulous that they would bother to file charges," said Stevens, who has maintained his position as NCCWD general manager throughout the investigation and continues to do so as of this week. "I think the allegations are completely without merit and I intend to fight them. An allegation is one thing, but proving it is another. I explained this to the District Attorney's office when I voluntarily met with them. I'll just repeat that I'm really astonished that they've chosen to file charges and I intend to fight."
Stevens was not arrested, but his lawyer was contacted last week. "We will arrange for him to surrender," explained Fox, who said that no arraignment date had been set and Stevens would not have to post any bail.
"If he is convicted, he is terminated from his position and is ineligible to hold any public office in the future," said Fox, explaining that the primary issue for the District Attorney's office was the perception that Stevens had abused his position in a public agency.
Fox was also greatly disturbed by the attitude of the NCCWD board of directors during the investigation.
"We were very concerned during our investigation with what we perceived to be a lack of cooperation from the North Coast County Water District," said Fox. Board members Tom Piccolotti and Bob Vetter were instrumental in instigating the investigation, with Piccolotti being credited for going to the D.A. with his concerns about the "giving" of district property to Gust. The scope of the investigation widened greatly from the initial focus. The other three board members during the investigation were President May Gee, Lee Forster and Russ Conroy.
Fox said he was amazed that his office actually had to obtain search warrants to acquire documents from the water district.
"In 26 years, (of law enforcement work), this is the only instance where an investigating agency had to obtain search warrants for the cooperation of another public agency," said Fox, who cited an identifiable "lack of cooperation by the majority," in what Fox believes was an attempt to cover and protect Dave Stevens.
Because Fox believes the board attempted to thwart his office's investigation, he is considering bringing formal accusations against some of the board members. He would not specify which board members he had in mind.
"It's not beyond the realm of possibilities that the board members will be brought before a grand jury," said Fox. Rather than criminal punishment, the board members would be removed from office if found guilty. Fox did not say there would be any action taken against former board members such as Bob Vetter or Lee Forster, both of whom were voted out of office on Nov. 5.
Contacted Wednesday, Vetter said he would be a prime witness against Stevens in the pending trial and the District Attorney had recommended he not talk about the case. "It's an extremely sad day for the water district," he said.
A controversial 3-2 vote taken earlier this fall by the water board during the investigation involved relinguishing lawyer/client confidentiality, something that then-boardmember Lee Forster and President May Gee refused to do, even though the District Attorney and the other three boardmembers considered it a vote of cooperation with the investigation.
Asked about the sentiment that voting against that particular measure should not be considered opposition to the criminal investigation, Fox bristled a bit and said, "It is my belief that they must not have understood. The board is obligated to give up public records. I have never experienced such conduct on the part of a public agency."
The investigation cast a strong influence over the recent water board election, since both incumbents were ousted by the voters and two new members were elected.
Asked if he had any regrets that the lengthy criminal investigation could have affected the Nov. 5 election, Fox put the blame on the board of directors.
"The election did not affect the investigation," he said, admitting that the reverse might be true. "It is unfortunate that this has taken so long and has affected the community. It is not the fault of the D.A.'s office, but the efforts of the board and other members of the district to thwart our investigation."
According to Fox, crucial documents have disappeared from the NCCWD files and although Stevens insists that no search warrants were ever necessary because the water district did, in fact, offer to cooperate, Fox contends that the warrants were needed.
"One of the difficulties we had is that the board learned about the investigation," said Fox, "and some records have disappeared, after the investigation began - time records, and other evidence the board considered damaging."
Of particular interest to Fox was a 1993 letter of reprimand against Stevens, signed by the board of directors, scolding the general manager for giving himself an unauthorized pay raise and abusing his credit card privileges. The letter, signed by May Gee, warned Stevens that any further abuses would result in his termination.
"They reprimanded him but never referred the matter to us," said Fox, who disagrees with the assumption that it was the board's prerogative to handle the situation in a closed session peronnel meeting. "It's our belief that the majority of the board was trying to cover up. A number of the records no longer exist. It is my belief that it is beyond the purview of a board if felony conduct is discovered," to handle it in closed session.
That letter of reprimand, as well as a previous 1984 felony conviction against Stevens, while he was a water district employee, involving the sale of cocaine using water district scales, added to the investigation's complexity.
"We do know that Mr. Stevens was convicted of a previous felony," said Fox, a little puzzled over how a district employee with such a conviction could go on to become the general manager. "That sends a message. I'm absolutely shocked that any public agency would allow an employee to do what we believe Mr. Stevens has done that has caused the filing of these charges and not report it (to a law enforcement agency)."
The criminal charges go back to 1990 and no charges are being brought against anyone else, although Fox is hopeful that Chuck Gust will cooperate in the upcoming criminal trial."I would certainly hope he would cooperate," said Fox of Gust.
If convicted, Stevens faces up to four years in prison on each count,
with a maximum sentence of up to 10 years.