A board member for Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District sold more than $6,000 in fire station furniture to the district last year, raising questions about a violation of the state’s ethics laws.
Board Member David Woods owns Fire Station Outfitters, a business that supplies furniture for fire stations.
In 2016, staff members working for Stanislaus Consolidated signed purchase orders to buy nine recliners from Fire Station Outfitters. The three purchases, in February, October and November 2016, came to a total of $6,160.
Paperwork shows that seven of the recliners, each costing $675 plus tax, were purchased to replace recliners in five of the district’s stations. Two of the recliners were placed in Station 24 in Waterford and five were delivered to Stations 21 in Modesto’s airport neighborhood, Station 22 in Empire, Station 23 east of Modesto, and Station 26 in Riverbank.
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To furnish living quarters for firefighters, Fire Station Outfitters has a website offering the “sentinel,” “guardian” and “Xtinguisher” recliners, as well as sofas, loveseats, metal beds and mattresses.
Woods reported he owns the business on a statement of economic interest filed with the district in April. According to the paperwork, the furniture and equipment sales business has gross income of more than $100,000 a year.
The transactions possibly violated ethics laws in California that prohibit public officials from using their positions for personal gain. The state has a longstanding law, spelled out in state Government Code Section 1090, which says that county, city and district officials shall not have a financial interest in the contracts of the government agency they serve.
Public officials are cautioned about Government Code Section 1090, which is not as well known as the California’s Political Reform Act of 1974, because Section 1090 violations may result in criminal charges.
Christopher Diaz, legal counsel for Stanislaus Consolidated, said Wednesday he was not aware the fire district purchased the furniture from Woods’ business. “This is the first we have heard of it, but we are looking into it to find out what went on,” Diaz said. “I am going to look into it. We have no further comment.”
The ethics laws aim to prevent self-dealing and ensure public officials and government employees have undivided loyalties to government agencies, whether it’s the state, a city, county or special district.
“If you are a member of the board and your business sells something to the district, you are in trouble if you had anything to do with getting the contract approved,” said Attorney Ken White, a partner in Brown White & Osborn law firm in Los Angeles. White has defended officials charged under the law in cases throughout the state.
“It’s why boards are careful not to engage in financial transactions with board members,” White said.
When asked about the purchases last week, Woods asked the reporter where the information was coming from. He has not returned messages to talk about the transactions.
Woods registered the business with the Secretary of State as Firehousefurniture.com LLC in July 2011 and later changed the name. Woods is named in the paperwork as chief executive officer and manager of Fire Station Outfitters. The business address is the same as his home on Weyer Road east of Empire.
The Bee obtained invoices and other records on the furniture sales, which were approved at the staff level. Under the district’s purchasing and contracting policies, the district board members and staff don’t need to seek competitive bids for purchases of supplies and equipment under $5,000.
Battalion Chief Rick Bussell made a purchase request for the first two recliners on Feb. 24. Deputy Chief Michael Wapnowski approved the invoice and a check for $1,076 was issued for the two recliners each priced at $500 plus sales tax. Former Board President Shayne Strasser and Wapnowski signed the check. Woods was absent April 4, 2016 when the board approved the February warrants on a 3-0 vote.
Bussell made the largest request for six recliners Oct. 15, 2016. Former Chief Matt Daly signed that invoice; Daly and board member Steve Green signed the $4,358 check made out to Fire Station Outfitters. When the board approved the October warrants under a consent item that December, Woods seconded the motion and the item passed on a unanimous vote.
Bussell’s request for another recliner, Nov. 9, 2016, was approved by Daly. Green and Daly signed the $726 check. Woods also took part in the unanimous vote to approve the November warrants on Dec. 8, 2016.
Wapnowski and Bussell did not return messages seeking details on the transactions. Capt. Buck Condit of Stanislaus Consolidated said there are no special requirements for furnishings supplied for fire station living quarters, though durable furniture is preferred.
The spotlight was cast last week on Stanislaus Consolidated when local officials and residents attended special board meetings to openly support Fire Chief Rick Weigel. The chief says that after the Oct. 25 meeting, held to evaluate his performance, Diaz asked him to resign with severance or be terminated after only four or five months on the job. Weigel’s last day on the job was set for Nov. 25.
Leaders from Riverbank, Oakdale, Waterford and Modesto have expressed concern about gaps in the top executive position at Stanislaus Consolidated, which provides emergency services in a 520-square-mile-area of eastern Stanislaus County. Daly, the previous chief, was with the district for only eight months.
White said the ethics laws are written and amended in favor of government with a goal of encouraging public trust in public officials.
One tenet of the law holds that members of a governing board that has authority to execute contracts are presumed to be involved in the contracts regardless of whether they actively participated in making the contract.
There’s no need to prove the official had evil intent in violating the law, White said. An official may be held accountable for violations even if he or she followed the advice of legal staff in the matter.
White said that Woods’ votes to approve warrants that paid him sums of money are a clear violation of the law. A board member or resident could petition to have the purchases nullified and the money returned to the district.
The attorney said criminal prosecutions most often occur in metropolitan areas where the district attorney’s office has a political corruption division. Civil cases filed under Government Code Section 1090 are usually done when there is political tumult, he said.
It’s not uncommon for plea deals to reduce felony charges to misdemeanors. Politicians convicted of ethics violations likely have no previous record and may be sentenced to probation, but a felony conviction on their record is devastating for their career.
“I don’t think officials get trained enough (in ethics laws) and not enough lawyers understand Section 1090 enough to train them effectively,” White said.
The attorney said he finds that independent contractors hired to run small special districts, such as a waste treatment district, are not aware that conflict of interest laws apply to them.
“It’s a huge trap for the unwary,” White said.
Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321, @KenCarlson16