El Monte used $152,000 grant to hire security firm that employed its police chief – San Gabriel Valley Tribune | #emailsecurity

The city of El Monte failed to disclose its police chief held a high-profile position in a security company that was paid $152,000 from a federal grant to help combat homelessness, the Southern California News Group has learned.

The company, Absolute International Security based in El Monte, was the lowest bidder in a proposal to provide security at two motels retrofitted for temporary housing for the homeless, according to a staff report. The city’s administration did not disclose Chief David Reynoso’s dual roles prior to the approval of the contract in February and allowed a member of the Police Department to review the proposals during the bidding process.

The city ended its contract with AIS at the end of April after the matter became public, according to El Monte CIty Manager Alma Martinez. Reynoso has since resigned from his role as the company’s chief of operations.

“This is a personnel matter and the city has taken steps to address it,” Martinez said in an email. “To my knowledge we have not found any evidence to show the chief had any influence over obtaining this security contract or directly benefited from this contract.”

Martinez authorized the chief to work for AIS during his off hours in January 2019, she said, and personally approved of an initial $30,000 contact with AIS. She did not disclose Reynoso’s role in the company to the City Council before it approved a $122,493 extension in February because he publicly listed the job on his Form 700, a self-reported annual disclosure of public officials’ outside income, in 2019 and 2020.

“I assumed that it was already known,” she said.

El Monte reviewed its bidding processes as a result of the controversy and made adjustments to ensure future disclosures are made, Martinez stated.

A call to AIS was not returned.

Chief considering lawsuit

Reynoso declined to comment and initially deferred questions to the city manager. Bradley Gage, an attorney who frequently represents police officers, later called on Reynoso’s behalf, and stated the chief is contemplating suing as he believes information from a closed City Council meeting about his employment with AIS was leaked to the media. Gage indicated the city plans to investigate “who released it and why it was released.”

El Monte’s city manager initially revealed that a city employee worked for AIS in response to questions at an April 20 meeting, but she would not disclose the employee’s identity at the time. Publicly available records, including an archive of the company’s website and a security proposal submitted to Central Basin Municipal Water District in April 2019, later confirmed Reynoso’s role as the company’s chief of operations. References to Reynoso have since been removed from the AIS website.

Gage said Reynoso obtained the city manager’s approval to work for the company and reported the work in his financial disclosures as required by his contract with the city. He declined to answer certain questions about Reynoso’s employment because of the confidentiality around personnel matters, particularly those involving police officers, he said.

“I have to be careful about what I say,” Gage said during an interview. “I don’t want to unwittingly violate the very rules that I believe the city is violating.”

Though Reynoso was approved to work at AIS only during his off hours, an April 2019 proposal to the Central Basin Municipal Water District listed him as an emergency contact, stating he could be reached by email and cellphone “any day of the week.” Gage denied that Reynoso ever worked the security job while on the clock as police chief.

“A lot of times people get listed as emergency contacts and they don’t know about it,” Gage said. “I’m not aware of him taking any calls during business hours for that.”

A breach of trust

Mayor Jessica Ancona said she became aware of Reynoso’s employment with AIS following the April 20 council meeting, roughly two months after she and her colleagues voted unanimously to approve the contract extension.

“I was extremely disappointed that this matter wasn’t disclosed to the council prior to voting on this contract,” Ancona said. “I felt that our trust was violated by concealing this conflict of interest.”

Ancona expressed concern the chief’s relationship with the company could jeopardize federal funding. The city planned to pay the $152,000 contract with administrative funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Homeless Emergency Solutions Grant program, according to a staff report. The city was unable to provide the total amount paid so far.

“A ‘bidding process’ completed by the Police Department under the direction of the chief of police is conflicting, and the use of federal funds to pay their fees in service to this ill got contract — I am very concerned,” Ancona said. “What else is being concealed from the public?”

Mayor Pro Tem Victoria Martinez Muela echoed Ancona’s concerns.

“This is a clear violation of the public trust,” she said. “Transparency and accountability must be the highest priority of this council.”

Why El Monte needed security

Martinez initially hired AIS in December 2020 under a one-month, $30,000 contract to handle security at two motels purchased that same month by the city for the state’s Homekey program, an initiative that transforms motels into temporary housing for the homeless. The initial contract was just under the dollar amount that would have required a City Council vote.

The M Motel is one of two properties El Monte acquired as part of its Homekey Program to provide shelter for homeless people in the city. (Courtesy photo City of El Monte)

In an email, Martinez said the city’s community and economic development director, Betty Donavanik, requested assistance from the Police Department to obtain three written quotes for security services in December 2020 due to the “short time frame in which the city acquired the properties, and the emergency need for on-site security.” Though a member of the Police Department conducted a “non-decision-making administrative function” in the process, the final vetting was done by Donavanik, she said.

A January staff report recommending a $34,998 per month extension until April 30 stated the two motel properties faced “imminent threats of blight, trespass, vandalism and other security concerns.” The City Council unanimously approved the amendment in February.

In an interview, Gage said the chief did not influence the selection in any way. He has no ownership stake in AIS and would not have received any extra pay as a result, he added. The attorney said he did not believe Reynoso had any prior knowledge of the company’s proposal or its eventual contract with El Monte.

Meeting minutes showed Reynoso led the flag salute during the meeting in which the council voted on the extension. Reynoso can be seen in the background of a recording of the meeting immediately prior to the vote, but is missing afterward. Gage did not know if Reynoso stayed for the whole meeting, but even if the chief was there, he had already disclosed the employment in his Form 700 from the Fair Political Practices Commission and received approval from the city manager.

“I think with at least what he knew at the time, he was acting appropriately and responsibly,” Gage said.

Gage said he believed Reynoso ended his contract with AIS because of the increased scrutiny.

“To avoid these kind of issues, going forward, he has decided to disassociate with the company,” Gage said. “That just seems logical to me.”

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