The new chief financial officer for the embattled West Valley Water District in Rialto admitted to fiscal malfeasance while working as Hawthorne’s finance director and was forced to resign last year after officials  there learned he took out a secret $25,000 personal loan from the city.

Shamindra “Rickey” Manbahal acknowledged publicly in June 2015 he helped cover up the city’s $5.6 million deficit by using millions of dollars in reserve funds to plug huge budget gaps. At the time, however, the city was not aware of the $25,000 loan, approved by the city’s then top administrator, subsequently learning of it from an internal investigation that led to Manbahal’s dismissal in May 2018.

West Valley Water District offices in Rialto. (Photo courtesy of West Valley Water District).

Manbahal requested the “emergency” loan in October 2014 due to personal financial problems, even though he subsequently admitted to an investigator that he helped pay half of a roughly $120,000 tab for his daughter’s wedding four months later, in February 2015, according to a 22-page investigation report released by the city.

Hawthorne submitted its case on Manbahal to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office for consideration of criminal charges, but the office declined to file.

“The district attorney’s Public Integrity Division received documents that did not support the initiation of a criminal investigation,” office spokeswoman Shiara Davila-Morales said.

Manbahal paid the loan back in full, Hawthorne City Attorney Russ Miyahira said in an email Thursday.

Hired in August without a contract

In August, the West Valley Water District in Rialto appointed Manbahal its new CFO, without a contract and without a background check. He immediately began work, but a contract was not approved until Sept. 19, when the district’s board of directors approved, on a 3-2 vote with board members Clifford Young and Greg Young dissenting, to hire Manbahal while a background check was still pending, according to water district records.

According to Manbahal’s employment contract, he receives a salary of $174,970 and a package of benefits, including 120 hours of administrative leave, 120 hours of vacation annually, 96 hours of sick leave each year, up to $5,000 annually in tuition for continued education, and up to $125,000 in life insurance.

Fired from city of Novato

Less than a month before Manbahal was appointed as the water district’s top money manager, the city of Novato fired him as a financial consultant after learning what occurred  in Hawthorne. At the time, he was working for consultant MV Cheng & Associates, which contracts with the water district.

Manbahal had also performed work for the water district as a subcontractor for MV Cheng prior to his appointment as the district’s CFO.

Water District General Manager Clarence Mansell Jr. said both Manbahal and Misty Cheng, CEO of MV Cheng & Associates, disclosed their firing in Novato to the water district, but said it was politically motivated.

Problems in Florida, too?

Additionally, a man with the same name and birth date as Manbahal was charged In 2005 with two felonies, grand theft and engaging in contracting without certification, in Palm Beach County, Florida, when he was working as a contractor, according to court records.

Ultimately, the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office decided not to prosecute the man and the case was closed.

Mansell claimed the man charged in the Florida case was not Manbahal.

“These matters did not show up in our background investigation,” Mansell said.

Additionally, he said, Manbahal “vehemently denies” he was charged in Palm Beach, claiming he was informed by a law enforcement agency that he actually was a victim of identity theft instead. “We will be contacting the law enforcement agency to verify his statements,” Mansell said.

Kathleen Einhorn said Thursday she paid Manbahal about $10,000 in 2005 to install cabinets in her Lake Worth, Florida, home, but no work was done. When Einhorn went to Manbahal’s business, Capital Custom Cabinetry, in nearby Boca Raton to complain, she was perplexed to find cabinets being built for other customers but not for her.

“I think what was happening, as money was coming in, they were applying it to build cabinets for whoever complained the most,” she said.

Einhorn sued Manbahal but Capital Custom Cabinetry declared bankruptcy and she was unable to recoup any of her money.

Candid about Hawthorne troubles

West Valley Water District board President Mike Taylor said in a telephone interview Wednesday that Manbahal was candid about his background with Hawthorne during an interview, and he was hired on condition that if the district learned he withheld any pertinent information, he would be fired.

“He was up front about everything that happened in Hawthorne right out the gate,” Taylor said.

Manbahal downplayed the magnitude of the incidents in Hawthorne in a statement Wednesday, saying he voluntarily informed the water district of a “political claim” made against him while working in Hawthorne. He did not respond Thursday when asked to elaborate on what he meant by “political claim,” who made the claim and why.

“I remain focused on improving the financial practices of the District to better serve our ratepayers,” Manbahal said in his statement.

West Valley board director Clifford Young disputes the assertion that a proper background check was conducted on Manbahal and that the board was privy to what happened in Hawthorne and elsewhere.

“That’s a bald-face lie,” Young said, adding he learned about the Hawthorne incident through media reports, not from Manbahal. “He never disclosed it to me.”

Young ultimately voted against employing Manbahal. “I had some problems with him being fired by the city of Hawthorne that were not brought to my attention,” he said. “I was very disturbed about the process of his hiring by the water district.”

Young also is unaware that Manbahal underwent a thorough background check by the water district.

“Why would you hire him if you didn’t do a background check?” he asked. “Overall, it’s disturbing when people are hired by the district in executive positions without going through proper procedures or background checks because, when they come to the board for approval, we don’t know anything about them. It’s highly inappropriate.”

Young, former CFO Naisha Davis, and Patricia Romero, now an administrative services analyst, have sued some of the district’s board members, lawyers and consultants in Los Angeles Superior Court alleging widespread corrupt practices, including bribery and kickbacks.

The defendants call the allegations erroneous and the lawsuit politically motivated because it is an election year and Young lost his position and power as water district board president.

Manbahal doing well

Taylor said Manbahal has helped resolve many of the district’s financial issues.

“It was nice to have someone who applied for the job who could hit the ground running,” said Taylor, noting that he was unaware Manbahal had been working for the district, with consultant MV Cheng & Associates, before Manbahal applied for the CFO position.

Taylor said Manbahal was the top candidate out of a pool of applicants, and he wanted to hire him quickly to fill the CFO post and help stabilize water district operations. He said the district has had roughly a half-dozen or more CFOs in the last three or four years.

“We needed full-time people in there. You can’t run the district on contract people all the time. We’re trying to stabilize the organization with permanent executives,” Taylor said.

Board director Greg Young said he was “deeply concerned” given Manbahal’s history.

“The hiring is just another corrupt hiring in a long string of highly questionable selections designed not to improve how West Valley is run but to continue a system of patronage for the current regime,” Young said in an email. “There is no legitimate reason to hire Mr. Manbahal given his history in Hawthorne.”

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