WRD photo Albert Robles
In the world of glass houses, Albert Robles could be accused of throwing stones.
Robles is president of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California, which provides water to 43 thirsty cities in Los Angeles County. He is outraged that five of his municipal clients are refusing to pay their water bills.
The holdout cities complain they have been overcharged by millions of dollars. But Robles says they are trying to get something for nothing.
“They want water, and they don’t want to pay for it,” he told local reporters.
The cities are “flat-out lying” about their rationale for holding back their water payments, Robles told California Watch. Their actions are “the height of hypocrisy,” he said.
Water wars are a way of life in Southern California, but this one has taken on a particularly bitter tone, and it has put Robles’ personal finances under the microscope as well.
“It’s ironic that Mr. Robles would accuse us of these things, and I resent it,” said Mario Guerra, a councilman in the city of Downey, one of the cities he has accused of shirking its bills.
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That’s because public records obtained by California Watch show that Robles owes the IRS and the state Franchise Tax Board nearly $44,000 in unpaid taxes. In 2007, Robles’ wages at the water agency were garnisheed to collect on a $13,000 credit card debt, according to court records.
In a phone interview, Robles said he is on the verge of reaching a settlement over the unpaid taxes. The liens have no relevance to the water rate dispute, he said. If his opponents are talking about his taxes, “that’s an absolute new low,” he said.
Nevertheless, the details about the water official’s personal finances provide a backdrop to a court fight that could affect the water rates of as many as 4 million Los Angeles County residents.
Robles’ portrayal of the cities as deadbeats is unjustified, said Guerra, a “part of their big spin machine."
Together, Downey and the cities of Bellflower, Pico Rivera, Cerritos and Signal Hill may have overpaid the water agency by as much as $8 million over five years, says their lawyer, Patricia Quilizapa.
Because a judge has ruled that the water agency violated state law in setting water rates, it makes no sense to pay more money to the agency until the issue of the overpayments is sorted out, Guerra said.
The water agency was created in the 1950s to guarantee water supplies for cities that get their municipal water from wells.
The cities pay the agency for the water they pump; the agency imports water from various sources and replenishes the underground water table that the cities tap.
In 2010, the cities of Downey, Cerritos and Signal Hill sued, complaining that the water agency had been overcharging them for years.
In their lawsuit, they contended that the agency’s budget was larded with expenditures that had nothing to do with supplying water. Ratepayers were footing the bill for political lobbying, music and art festivals, and even camping equipment for Boy Scout troops, they complained. They also accused the agency of violating Proposition 218, a state law that restricts how agencies can set fees for government services.
WRD photo Water Replenishment District of Southern California
The water agency says its rates are fair and legal.
But in his 2011 ruling, Judge James Chalfant said that since 2006, the agency had violated the law by failing to verify that its rates were based on the costs of providing water.
While the issue of whether the cities are entitled to refunds works its way through the courts, the cities have held back $5.7 million in water bills, the agency says.
In the meantime, the agency has regularly denounced the holdout cities, with Robles taking a lead role. In an op-ed essay distributed to news outlets, Robles accused the cities of violating “one of the fundamental tenets of life … ’You can’t get something for nothing.’”
Robles, 42, is a politically active Los Angeles lawyer who was first elected to the water replenishment district board in 1992, when he was 23 years old.
For three years while he was on the board, from 1999 to 2002, he was a full-time student 300 miles away at UC Berkeley’s School of Law, according to the university.
(He is not to be confused with Albert Robles, the former treasurer of the city of South Gate and a former director of the Central Basin Municipal Water District. That Albert Robles was sentenced to prison in 2006 in a city contracting scandal.)
Robles got into financial trouble in 2006, when Chase Bank USA won a $13,369 legal judgment for unpaid credit card bills, court records show. At one point, the sheriff garnisheed his pay at the water agency, where Robles says he earns about $40,000 per year.
Meanwhile, Robles got into tax trouble. An IRS lien says that Robles owes $12,155 on his 2006 federal income taxes. Another lien says Robles owes $31,772 in unpaid state income taxes from 2008 and 2009.
The credit card judgment was paid, but the tax liens are still outstanding.
Robles said the liens and the judgment were the result of financial disputes. He said he hoped to settle with both the IRS and the state soon.
“I don’t understand what my personal financial difficulties have to do with these five cities not paying,” he said. His tough criticism of the cities isn't personal, he said.
“I haven’t said (a particular city official) is a deadbeat – it's the cities,” he said. It’s wrong to personalize the debate, he said.
At times, Robles’ political activities have caused him problems. In 2007, Robles was accused of paying cash for pamphlets supporting a slate of candidates in a water district election in Pico Rivera and mailing them anonymously. The law requires payment by check and return addresses on political mail.
Charged with three misdemeanors, Robles pleaded not guilty, saying he was being targeted for prosecution because he had called Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley “the worst district attorney in the history of the county.”
In 2008, while the case was pending, Robles ran against Cooley. He finished a distant second, but a jury acquitted him of the criminal charges.
After the race was over, Cooley’s office investigated Robles in connection with a barrage of anonymous telephone “robo-calls” that seemed designed to boost Robles’ campaign for district attorney.
The operator of a robo-call service was summoned before a grand jury to testify about his work for Robles in the campaign, according to a copy of a subpoena posted online.
Robles denied wrongdoing, and accused Cooley of launching the probe to “settle a personal score,” the Los Angeles Times reported. No charges were ever filed.