THE EASTSIDER - In my March article about the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, we met the new General Manager Adel Hagekhalil, who in 2021 took the reins of the behemoth regional wholesaler and largest supplier of treated water in the United States. My second article in April focused on the fishy politics at the MWD Board that saw Adel, protégé of former LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, being narrowly approved as General Manager. This despite grave misgivings about Adel’s qualifications, as well as lingering lawsuits against him in the City of LA. Now, in this third installment, we look at the day-to-day impact that Adel has had on MWD, and according to sources within the agency, it ain’t a pretty picture.
The years 2020-21 were tumultuous ones for MWD. Its long-time General Manager Jeff Kightlinger, a highly respected figure in the water business both locally and at the national level, was about to retire. Like all agencies, MWD was also coping with the COVID pandemic. But perhaps most challenging of all, MWD was facing allegations from a handful of female employees that it had failed to adequately address past complaints of discrimination and harassment.
These allegations were well-publicized in a series of LA Times articles at the time, and they also hit the radar of the California State Auditor. For readers who may not be familiar, the State Auditor bills itself as an independent arm of state government, bragging on its website that:
“The Legislature asks us to examine some of California's biggest challenges. Our teams get to the heart of these issues by understanding the law, interviewing key players, analyzing data, and poring over government documents. We become the experts, and once we understand the root cause of a problem, we pivot to develop creative and practical ways to solve it.”
After a lengthy audit, the State Auditor concluded that MWD:
- Failed at times to appropriately punish those who had engaged in discriminatory or harassing behavior.
- Sometimes took too long to investigate complaints of discrimination and harassment.
- Did not have a clear and transparent process for hiring and promoting employees.
Adel Promises to Change the Culture
Enter Adel Hagekhalil, who came on board at MWD in early summer 2021. According to sources, at first, he seemed to strike all the right chords. He promised a “culture change” at MWD, pledging to the workforce that “We Are One.”
He also made good, virtue-signaling moves, like hiring a Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer; a new Equal Employment Opportunity Officer; and a new Chief Sustainability, Resiliency and Innovation Officer (albeit at salaries well over $300,000 a year each). And, when the State Audit Report was released, Adel committed to fully embracing its recommendations.
So, what could possibly go wrong? Well, according to a trove of documents obtained, lots.
Bad Behavior is OK…If Adel Likes You
In one case, documents point to some pretty egregious racist, sexist and harassing behavior by a female employee of MWD. Comments she made to co-workers included calling one “a fucking white male,” and telling another that “the only reason you’re here is because you’re a white guy.” She also must not have been much fun to try and manage, as she told a supervisor-to-be: “I understand you’re going to be our fucking supervisor, what the fuck!” As one of the victims of her diatribes described to the investigator, “I’ve never been in a place of more stress, anxiety,” confessing that he was “scared to death” of her.
As CityWatchLA readers know, anti-discrimination laws protect EVERYONE, including, yes, white males. And as a long-time public employee on both the management and union sides (with the bruises to show for it), I can tell you that using racial epithets, and generally harassing and intimidating your colleagues, is a pretty sure-fire way to get yourself some unpaid time off, if not outright fired.
Only problem is that when managers presented the situation to Adel in July of 2021, he pointedly instructed them NOT to punish this employee. Why not? Well, according to sources, this employee was very active in the Union, and a vocal critic of the prior MWD executive leadership. Adel, who had taken time to meet with her personally his first few weeks on the job, saw her as a way to burnish his credentials as a “change agent.” Therefore, no matter the evidence against her, he was going to protect her. She was untouchable.
It gets juicier. Although the employee herself was never punished, documents show that Adel subsequently reprimanded his own managers for even trying to hold her accountable. To top it all off, the employee later ended up getting a promotion from Adel to the (wait for it) …Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Sometimes you can’t make this stuff up.
Complaint? What Complaint?
Of course, none of this sat too well with some at MWD, especially the victims who’d been on the receiving end of her racism and harassment. One even filed a complaint against Adel, alleging that the GM failed to ensure a safe work environment. This was in December of 2021, but over a year later, the complaint had not been investigated. Remember, the State Auditor had criticized MWD for dragging its feet on these sorts of things.
Worse yet, there is evidence obtained by CityWatchLA which strongly suggests a conscious effort by MWD, through its outside lawyers, to actually suppress an investigation, lest it prove embarrassing for Adel. Legally speaking, that is a big no-no, and this one may be headed to the courts, which is starting to seem like a pattern with Adel.
And Then There’s Good Ol’Fashioned Favoritism
These days at MWD, the old adage seems to apply that it doesn’t matter what you know, it’s WHO you know. Documents show that several individuals have been handed plum jobs paying well into six figures, largely because they were on Adel’s good side. For folks not familiar with how government works, jobs are supposed to be competed for in a fair equitable process called a “merit system,” not given out like some modern-day Tammany Hall. It’s also the sort of thing for which, again, the State Auditor had roundly criticized MWD.
Of course, when you’ve cut your teeth in Hizzoner Garcetti’s City of LA, as Adel did, quaint notions like merit seem to go out the window. As for the State Audit Report, as far as Adel is concerned those are “rules for thee, and not for me.”
“Personnel? That’s For Ass Holes” –Dirty Harry, “The Enforcer,” 1976
At this point, you may be wondering where Human Resources was in all of this. After all, wasn’t somebody supposed to speak up and enforce the rules? Well if you want to take over a bureaucracy, the first thing you do is target your HR Department, and from the start, evidence points to Adel trying to marginalize MWD’s HR. This culminated in the HR Director, a 25-year veteran of the agency with a spotless employment record, being shown the door earlier this year. In the email announcement to the workforce, it would appear that this parting of the ways was by “mutual agreement.” Maybe it’s just me, but something sure sounds off, and I’ll be digging around for more information. Either way, it seems Adel is very adept at one thing for sure, gaining control of a bureaucracy.
There are many at MWD who consider Adel to be a “nice guy,” just one who is simply out of his depth. Others are less sanguine, fretting that the massive water agency is heading into a period of unprecedented challenge with very low morale, and no leadership from the top. Some had hoped the California State Auditor would step back into the picture, but others doubt Sacramento will help. After all, they say, Adel is one of them.
Finally, as I was wrapping up this article, another MWD source came forward with another nugget. Turns out that on December 12, 2022, MWD’s Board approved a 16% pay raise for Adel. This while rank-and-file employees got just a 3% raise last year, and while a unit of field managers represented by the IBEW has gone over a year now without a new contract, due to pay disputes. To many at MWD, this is just one more indignity in the reign of Adel. As one insider put it, “You gotta give him credit, he did manage to change the culture here. It’s now a culture of corruption, cronyism, and incompetence.”
(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatchLA.)