Silicon Valley officials lead investigation of political ally
The Santa Clara Valley Water District is located at 5750 Almaden Expressway in San Jose. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Two elected officials in Silicon Valley are investigating one of their colleagues for alleged misconduct after endorsing and donating to his campaign.

    It’s a move other officials say is a clear conflict of interest.

    Santa Clara Valley Water Board directors Barbara Keegan and Linda LeZotte told San José Spotlight that directors Tony Estremera and John Varela shouldn’t lead the investigation into their embattled colleague, Gary Kremen, because they’ve endorsed Kremen’s current campaign and donated to a past one.

    “They have a vested in interest in his successful reelection,” Keegan told San José Spotlight. “If I were in a case where I had endorsed someone, I would feel the appropriate thing to do would be to recuse myself.”

    The accusations come as the board and the public await the long-delayed results of an investigation into Kremen’s past behavior as a director. Kremen requested the investigation himself, hoping to clear his name after San José Spotlight revealed in March a string of complaints alleging he’d abused his power on the board and bullied Valley Water workers.

    The complaints came weeks after this news organization broke a story about Kremen — who was running for county assessor at the time — sharing partially nude photos with a campaign staffer. The scandal ended his campaign but now he’s seeking another four years on the Valley Water board.

    Estremera and Varela make up two-thirds of the three-member ethics committee responsible for the investigation into Kremen. Both endorsed Kremen’s November reelection bid and donated $500 and $100, respectively, to his failed county assessor campaign last year, campaign finance records show.

    The ethics committee has final say on whether the results of the investigation will be published before the November election. Because of this power, LeZotte said, the committee shouldn’t be comprised of Kremen’s allies. She pushed the agency to release the report ahead of the Nov. 8 election, though ballots are already out.

    “(Nai Hsueh is) literally the only one who can look at this with an honest face,” she said, referring to the third director on the ethics committee. Hsueh also donated $288 to Kremen’s assessor campaign last year, but she did not endorse his current reelection bid. She did not respond to a request for comment.

    Estremera, who is the ethics committee chair, denied any conflict of interest. He claimed the ethics committee only has influence on the scope of the investigation—not its findings. Local law firm Renne Public Law Group has conducted the investigation independently, Estremera added, with little input from the board.

    “There is no conflict,” Estremera told San José Spotlight. “This is a made up story.”

    Varela did not respond to a request for comment.

    Estremera and Varela donated to Kremen’s assessor campaign months before a former campaign employee accused Kremen of sharing inappropriate photos in February. Kremen refunded all three directors’ donations after he ended his campaign for assessor.

    Kremen consultant Frances Herbert also rejected Keegan and LeZotte’s accusations, pointing to those directors’ own political leanings. Both directors have been critical of Kremen in the past, she told San José Spotlight. Campaign finances show Keegan donated $250 to Kremen’s opponent, Rebecca Eisenberg, in September.

    Hsueh has supported Kremen’s opponents in the past, Herbert said.

    “Everybody has taken a side,” she said. “There is not a person on the board that is in-between.”

    Contact Brian Howey at [email protected] or @SteelandBallast on Twitter.

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