District attorney investigating Imperial Irrigation District in response to Desert Sun reporting
Imperial County’s district attorney says he has launched a preliminary investigation into the Imperial Irrigation District, in response to a series of stories published by The Desert Sun that raised questions about potential conflicts of interest at the public utility.
District Attorney Gilbert Otero said in an interview Wednesday that his office is in the early stages of investigating issues raised by the newspaper’s reporting. The potential conflicts identified by The Desert Sun involve IID spending tens of millions of ratepayer dollars on energy projects with links to ZGlobal, a longtime consultant for the utility.
Otero said he has excluded his assistant district attorney, Deborah Owen, from the investigation to avoid a conflict of interest. Owen’s brother-in-law is Mike Abatti, a farmer and former IID board member who worked with ZGlobal to build a giant battery for IID. Abatti’s company got a $35-million contract for the battery from IID after the public utility disqualified three bidders with cheaper proposals for not having a certain type of contractor’s license — even though Abatti’s company didn’t have that license, either.
“I specifically kept (Owen) out of the loop because one of the individuals involved in that is her brother-in-law,” Otero said. “I told her, ‘I’m going to be doing this — you don’t ask, and we’re not going to tell you.'”
ZGlobal has gotten $18 million worth of contracts from IID over the last dozen years, including a three-year, $9-million contract in October 2015 to run the public utility’s transmission and planning unit, which deals with power grid issues. ZGlobal has also worked for private-sector energy companies in Imperial County, helping to develop solar farms that must connect to IID’s power grid to turn a profit, as well as the battery project.
On several occasions, The Desert Sun found, ZGlobal has done work for IID that has directly affected its private-sector clients, raising questions about whether the consulting firm may have violated California law. The state’s conflict-of-interest code prohibits private contractors working for public entities from using their position as a government agent to participate in the making of public contracts that could benefit them financially.