Federal investigation into Atascadero shifts into high gear
July 27, 2010
Federal agents from several agencies including the FBI and FEMA were in the city of Atascadero a few weeks ago asking questions about the Printery – the city’s former youth center – and searching through records related to the alleged theft of FEMA funds by the city of Atascadero, city officials said.
“He asked me when the last time the Printery was used actively by the city,” said Kevin Campion, the director of the Atascadero Skate Park who told the investigator that he was not involved in youth activities until a few years ago. “He was pretty aggressive.”
Campion said he called City Hall to report the agent’s question and was told that federal investigators were going through offices and interviewing staff there also.
A city employee, who asked to remain unnamed to protect his or her position, said City Manager Wade McKinney claimed the federal “audit” was a standard yearly event.
“Anytime any agency deals with FEMA, once the projects are completed, the office of the Inspector General inspects the project,” said Marcia Torgeson, Atascadero city clerk and assistant to the city manager. “The audits are routine and expected.”
In 2008, City Attorney Brian Pierik announced that FBI investigators were conducting a probe into activities at Atascadero City Hall. It was suspected that the inquiry centered around the city’s unconventional and questionable procurement of FEMA funds to build a replacement youth center at 5493 Traffic Way.
FBI public relations officials have declined to confirm or deny any investigation.
CalCoastNews first revealed the apparent sleight-of-hand by city officials in an early 2008 article. The story revealed how city officials bilked taxpayers out of more than $4 million in disaster aid to construct a replacement youth center under the guise the previous center had been rendered unsafe during the 2003 San Simeon earthquake.
Those officials alleged the historic Printery Building was the city’s youth center at the time of the quake, according to state and federal records.
However, at the time of the quake, the Printery Building, located at 6351 Olmeda Avenue, was not functioning as a youth center, but as a meeting hall for the Freemasons. The city’s actual youth center stood a few blocks away, at 5493 Traffic Way, the site of the city’s current skate park.
Responding to allegations of improper actions, McKinney developed his version of a “timeline” to bolster his claim that funds for the city’s youth center were acquired appropriately. McKinney said that city agencies were sponsoring events such as volleyball, cheerleading, “Mommy and Me” classes, and Friday Variety Nights at the Printery Building during the month of the quake.
However, during a city council meeting, Community Services Director Brady Cherry said the only ongoing activities at the Printery Building in December 2003 were Masonic meetings and private karate classes. Neither of which would qualify the building for taxpayer funded repairs.
In addition to attempting to procure funds for the Printery, city officials have requested federal and state aid to help repair the historic City Hall rotunda building because of damage they said was caused by the 6.5-magnitude quake, including sinking of the foundation, bricks that popped out of the building’s façade, new cracks throughout the building and water pipes that began to leak.
However, there is evidence in Atascadero – the recollections of former elected officials, city employees, and previous reports – that shows that some leading city officials may have purposely lied when they reported that the historic City Hall’s foundation substantially sank during the 2003 San Simeon earthquake.
The disinformation was part of an attempt to get more than $30 million in federal and state disaster relief funds. Of that, approximately $8 million was slated for repairing the un-level foundation.
In April 2010, FEMA denied a second appeal for funding for city hall repairs noting that local news publications had reported on the building’s sinking prior to the December 2003 earthquake.
“The city did not present conclusive evidence that differential settlement of the site was a direct result of the disaster,” said Michael Baldwin, public assistance officer for the California Emergency Management Agency in a letter to the city on April 14, 2010. “Therefore, FEMA denied the city’s second appeal.”
FEMA has agreed to pay for disaster related damage and for strengthening the masonry walls and the foundation of the city hall building.
“I have always believed that something unethical and probably criminal occurred with the acquisition of federal funds for the Printery,” said former Atascadero mayor Mike Brennler. “I hope these investigations bring those who are culpable to justice,”
Updated at 4 p.m. on July 27 to add a response from Marcia Torgeson, Atascadero city clerk and assistant to the city. manager.