Atascadero’s liars and thieves $7.5 million rip off
April 16, 2012
OPINION By DAVID BROADWATER
Not many locals were shocked to learn that Atascadero City officials allegedly fraudulently obtained and used $8 million in federal taxpayer money from FEMA, revealed by the recent release of its OIG (Office of Inspector General) audit. They may find it surprising, though, to realize that those officials also conspired to steal an additional $7.5 million by lying about the condition of the city hall building prior to the 2003 San Simeon earthquake.
This fraud was not included in that OIG audit report because it only addressed funds actually dispersed to the city, not the money the city failed to obtain from FEMA. It does, however, demonstrate that the same officials now in charge of responding to that OIG audit repeatedly and intentionally lied about a tilt in the city hall foundation in order to obtain $7.5 million in FEMA funds for repairing the settlement of the foundation.
The truth – foundation tilt existed before the earthquake
Six months prior to the earthquake, June 4, 2003, a front-page article in the SLO Tribune reported that a foundation-repair company’s survey of the building found a seven inch tilt in the city hall foundation. Other sources cited in that report were the city’s deputy community services director (now deputy public works director), the assistant city manager (now director of community services), the building maintenance supervisor, and previous Mayor Marge Mackey (now deceased).
City officials were “really alarmed” because “the costs here could be enormous”, and observed the problem had “gotten progressively worse in the last few years” including “signs that the building is settling.”
The fact is that knowledge about the pre-existing condition of the foundation’s seven inch tilt was widespread among city officials as demonstrated by this front-page news coverage. Assertions of ignorance are blatantly false.
The lies – earthquake caused the foundation tilt
Lie number one:
In its first-level appeal to FEMA, Feb. 1, 2008, the city claimed the earthquake, and nothing else, caused the foundation to tilt. Specifically, the city wrote:
“2.0 Earthquake Damage …
“The following damage is a direct result of the earthquake:
“The site experienced significant settlement caused by sub-surface soil liquefaction due to the earthquake. …
“5.3 Settlement …
“The building settlement damage did not exist prior to the earthquake.”
Perhaps the most flagrant of the city’s lies is demonstrated by the pictorial “evidence” it submitted to justify its bogus claim. It’s a photograph taken of the building circa 1915, with cars from that era (Model A or Ts?) parked in front, and without the towering pine trees at the corners of the building that were cut down recently. The city simply tilted this photo to the left.
Lie number two:
In its second-level appeal to FEMA, Feb. 2, 2009, the city, again, claimed the foundation tilt was exclusively the result of the earthquake, specifically:
“The City is requesting in bullet summary: …
“That FEMA indicate re-leveling of the building is an eligible disaster related repair cost, reimbursable at actual cost. …
On December 22, 2003, the San Simeon Earthquake struck… Atascadero. …
“Significant settlement caused by sub-surface soil liquefaction due to the earthquake. …
“The Reconstruction Plan: … Major elements of repairs to be completed: …
“Correct the foundation that settled …
“Construction sequence: …
“The basement is excavated to install piles under the foundation to stabilize building settlement and re-level the building to pre-disaster condition. …”
To support this bogus claim, the city submitted two drawings of the city hall purporting to show the pre-earthquake levelness (0 inch – 0 inch) and post-earthquake crookedness (seven inch differential settlement):
“5.3 Settlement: …
“The Two Graphics below illustrate the before and after condition of the City Hall. Graphic #1 and #2 show a visual representation of the building and ground settlement before and after the earthquake. …”
Lie number three:
The city also graphically claims the seven inch foundation tilt only appeared after the earthquake.
The city also falsely asserted numerous other structural problems, cited in the June 2003 newspaper article, resulted from the earthquake.
The March 20, 2012 FEMA OIG audit gives the city 90 days to respond. Now, the same perpetrators in city hall who concocted this and other lies in an attempt to steal federal taxpayer money are in charge of submitting the city’s response.
At the March 10, 2012 city council meeting, Assistant City Manager Jim Lewis (on behalf of absent Administrative Services Director Rachelle Rickard) presented a vigorous defense against the alleged misappropriation, mismanagement and misuse or funds FEMA had dispersed to the city. Lewis characterized the OIG audit as “incorrect”, “irrelevant”, “questionable”, based on “preconceived notions”, and displayed (on the large chamber screen) the statement that “agendas and motives must be questioned.”
Minutes later, the council was presented with the above evidence/proof that city officials had lied and attempted theft (also on the large screen). They also received the recommendation to remove them from their positions. The council was informed that, if they don’t do so, and authorize those officials to compose the response to the OIG audit, they lack the integrity to occupy their own seats.
In response, the council and city staff were completely silent and moved on to the next agenda item. The video of the March 10, 2012 council meeting can be viewed on the Slo-Span website (http://www.slo-span.org/atas/atas_meeting1.html ).
The American people care about their neighbors and pool their tax money with FEMA to help folks in dire need of assistance after disasters. Depriving victims of $7.5 million set aside for those actually needy, with phony claims of unrelated damage hurts the intended beneficiaries of our collective compassion, and undermines the public’s confidence in disaster response.
Doing so, and authorizing it, render elected and appointed officials unfit for public service. This isn’t just about legality and money. It’s about deceit, corruption, immorality and heartlessness. This infection must be excised or the rot will spread.
I want to see the old city hall restored, but I don’t’ want a shroud of shame clouding my vision of the iconic structure. I want to be proud of my town for how it bounced back from the 2003 earthquake, not ashamed it did so based on lies.