Wed, Jul

MWD Of Southern California – Hail To The Chief (Of Staff)

(l) GM Adel Hagekhalil – (r) Chief or Staff Mohsen Mortada

THE EASTSIDER - In my last column on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and its fearless leader, General Manager Adel Hagekhalil, I mentioned the controversial hiring of Adel’s friend, Mohsen Mortada, as his new Chief of Staff. A new job, paying up to $423,000 a year. I also mentioned that Mohsen had been hired by Adel first as a consultant, before landing this sweet new gig. 

Well, as Alice famously remarked, things just keep getting “curiouser and curiouser,” and it

turns out that I barely even scratched the surface. 

Mohsen Mortada the Consultant 

Mohsen was hired a few years back to do an organizational assessment of MWD. A copy of one invoice obtained by CityWatch shows Mohsen was paid a tidy sum of $220,000. Sources suggest he may actually have made far more than this, but we will see as I file a Public Records Act request for Mohsen’s full compensation, as well as the scope of work and final work product, has predictably been blown off by MWD. 

Loyal CityWatch readers might well presume that for a fee well into six figures, Mohsen at the very least came up with an expertly prepared work product. You know, like a report with analyses, findings and recommendations. Well, you’d be wrong. Multiple sources have confirmed that while Adel did ultimately make changes to his org chart, Mohsen himself never produced any report of any kind. So what was the point of it all?  Read on. 

The Circle of Life – Consultant to “Chief of Staff” (and no doubt one day, back to Consultant) 

Despite producing no tangible work product from his stint as MWD’s consultant, there was definitely one tangible outcome. It would appear that as a result of Mohsen’s organizational assessment, Adel decided that among other things, he needed a new “Chief of Staff”. And the perfect man for the job? Why, none other than the guy who did the organizational review in the first place, Mohsen Mortada. 

Let that sink in for a moment, if you will. Mohsen the “consultant” consulted his way into a job paying nearly twice that of Governor Newsom (sorry Gavin, though if you’re interested in a pay raise, Mohsen might be a good person to know…just sayin’). 

Mohsen’s salary also dwarfs that of LA Mayor Karen Bass’ chief of staff, who earns a paltry $194,000.  It’s also way more than either MWD Executive Officer & Chief Operating Officer

Deven Upadhyay, or Chief Administrative Officer Shane Chapman. Upadhyay and Chapman are long-time MWD veterans and respected water industry leaders. Both were considered strong candidates themselves for the GM job back in 2021, and sources within MWD largely credit them for keeping water operations moving smoothly since Adel took over. 

Mohsen’s pay also far outpaces the salary of Chief Financial Officer Katano Kasaine, another well-regarded executive with responsibilities for MWD’s budget, investment portfolio, financial planning, and debt issuance, as well as key functions like Human Resources and Risk Management. 

And so what does Adel’s new Chief of Staff do to earn his keep? Well, take a look at these hard-hitting job duties, which I took directly from Mr. Mortada’s job description: 

  • Provides staff assistance to the General Manager ranging from moderately difficult to highly complex.
  • Represents the General Manager’s Office with a wide variety of individuals and groups to develop or strengthen support, agreement, participation and partnerships.
  • Serves as liaison between General Manager and other executives and Department Heads, member agencies, industry and community partners, and interested parties to ensure consistent communication and timely and informed decision-making.
  • Oversees daily information flow and the General Manager’s calendar to prioritize, make effective use of time and ensure sufficient advance support.

I know what you must be thinking, and no, I don’t know what any of this means either. 

When the Rules Get In Your Way, Change the Rules 

But here’s the real kicker. It appears that Adel’s hiring of his buddy Mohsen was done without authorization from the MWD Board, in direct defiance of MWD’s own Administrative Code. 

You see, to prevent General Manager types from doing just this very sort of hanky-panky, the Code clearly requires the MWD Board to authorize new positions, at Board-authorized salaries. Adel cavalierly bypassed these inconvenient rules and left his Board out of it. 

Adel also guaranteed Mohsen a full year’s salary should he be separated from his employment. For the mathematically challenged, that would be roughly $800,000 for Mohsen in one year alone -- a $400,000 severance plus his $400,000 salary. Again, another no-no as this little severance bonanza was never authorized by the MWD Board. 

Oh but wait, there’s more. Sources confirm that Adel was, and may still be, planning to go to the Board in the coming weeks with Administrative Code “changes.” According to these sources, the changes to the Code would be cleverly packaged so that Adel could plausibly argue that Mohsen’s hiring WAS authorized, under rules adopted after the fact.

If that seems confusing to readers, I’ll put it this way. It’s a bit like committing bank robbery, and then seeking a change to the Penal Code after the fact to make bank robbery legal. “See, I didn’t commit no crime…” 

Not surprisingly, and perhaps encouragingly, this whole fiasco has prompted an investigation by MWD’s Ethics Office, headed by Mr. Abel Salinas. We’ll see what Ethics Officer Salinas will uncover. 

How Does This Guy Keep His Job? 

Given all these shenanigans, I asked one source what has allowed Adel to not only keep his job, but actually be rewarded with pretty hefty pay raises from his bosses, the MWD Board. Their answer: the City of Los Angeles. 

By that they meant the City’s five-person delegation to the MWD Board, which happens to be the single largest voting bloc on the Board. The LA delegation is comprised of Nancy Sutley, Miguel Angel Luna, Carl E. Douglas, Tracy M. Quinn and Matt Petersen, most of whom were appointed by former Mayor Garcetti (currently residing in India as US Ambassador as he daydreams about a future run for President). According to this source, as long as the Los Angeles delegation with its lion’s share of decision-making power remains steadfast in its support of Hagekhalil, he is unlikely to be going anywhere anytime soon. 

And so it goes with Adel and the MWD. Complaints and litigation against Adel mount (as I went to press, I learned of yet another lawsuit, this one concerning the recent recruitment for the HR Director…but that’s another story for another time), ethics and rules remain optional for the General Manager, and more and more agency veterans are throwing in the towel and calling it quits. 

Ah, and remember how in my last column I outlined the generous new labor deal with AFSCME, costing some $44 million? Readers will recall that I applauded AFSCME, but questioned whether the deal was fiscally prudent. Well, predictably, MWD is now staring down the barrel, sources say, of a projected $450 million budget deficit this fiscal year. 

Stay tuned folks, we haven’t heard the last from our favorite water utility.  As soon as I figure out the MWD’s Public Records Act system, we’ll see  what else we can uncover, assuming that I get a response.

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.)