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Nevada irrigation district faces new accusations

Scott Sonner
Associated Press Writer

RENO, Nev. ” A union lawyer accused the Truckee Carson Irrigation District’s board of directors on Thursday of illegally approving a secret contract to finance the legal defense of district officials charged with defrauding the federal government.

The lawyer for the union representing TCID workers also told The Associated Press that all of the approximately half dozen employees who testified before the grand jury that indicted the officials received notice on Thursday they are being laid off.

Michael Langton, representing the Nevada Classified School Employees and Public Workers Local 6181, said he’s investigating whether the layoffs were in retaliation for blowing the whistle on what federal prosecutors say was a conspiracy to falsify records so as to secure extra water supplies from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

He estimated the contract with three lawyers that TCID’s board of directors approved on Wednesday was in excess of $100,000. He also questioned whether the board had the authority to spend the money out of funds northern Nevada farmers pay the district to get their share of the water for their crops and livestock.

“I’d like to know where they are getting the money from,” Langton told AP.

“What they are charging farmers has to go for providing water for users, not for defending persons who are accused of violating the law,” he said.

Michael Van Zandt, a lawyer who appeared on behalf of the district in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, did not immediately return a telephone call or e-mail seeking comment.

The Lahontan Valley News first reported that the TCID board went into a closed session on Wednesday before approving the contract for lawyers who appeared in federal court earlier this week with the four TCID officials charged with conspiracy to defraud the Bureau of Reclamation, falsification of records, false claims and false statements.

The accused include Dave Overvold, project manager for the district, and Lyman McConnell, the district’s lawyer.

Federal prosecutors allege in the indictment handed up Dec. 5 they were part of a scheme to inflate water delivery data so as to secure extra water credits from the bureau to boost supplies primarily for area farmers and ranchers from 2000-05.

“My guys were the ones who originally reported what they thought were misdeeds,” Langton said about the union members he represents.

“If they have been retaliated against, it is not only a violation of state law but also federal law,” he said.

“I find it odd they haven’t had layoffs in years and years and years. Then these guys testify and all of the sudden the money is not there, they say they have to lay them off and yet they are paying ” in my best guestimate ” over $100,000 for their defense,” he said.

The TCID board voted on Dec. 15 to lay off 23 of the district’s 44 positions, citing a budget shortfall and economic downturn. Langton said they include “six or seven” employees who testified before the federal grand jury.

The board agenda for Wednesday’s meeting in Fallon listed an item regarding the lawyer contracts only as “Approve contracts ” Denny, Evans and Freeman.”

In federal court on Tuesday, Craig Denney of Reno appeared with Overvold, Scott Freeman of Reno appeared with McConnell and Don Evans appeared with Shelby Cecil, a third TCID employee facing charges. The fourth, John Baker, is being represented by a federal public defender.

Neither Denney, Freeman nor Evans immediately returned telephone calls seeking comment on Thursday.

Evans told the Reno Gazette-Journal on Tuesday the workers who testified before the grand jury “are all disgruntled employees.”

The Lahontan Valley News reported that TCID Board President Ernie Schank introduced the agenda item and said it was discussed in the closed portion of the meeting.

One water user, Kathy Mort, asked if her irrigation operation and maintenance fees were being used to pay for the layers.

Schank referred the question to Van Zandt, who told Mort the matter was confidential.

“You don’t have a right to know,” said Van Zandt, according to the newspaper.

Langton said Thursday that the board litigation strategy is confidential, but that the contract itself is not. He said the board should make public the contract and redact any material that is legally confidential.


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