In a move very likely to revive local controversies and bitter memories, Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) water attorney Tim O’Laughlin has been hired by Trinitas Partners to manage its huge Hawaiian farming operation in Maui, where it’s known as “Mahi Pono.”
Now an entity with too many names and subsidiaries to list, Trinitas/Mahi Pono recently purchased 56,000 acres in Maui for $267 million from sugar cane growers Alexander & Baldwin. As was the case when Trinitas was annexed into the Oakdale Irrigation District in 2013, Mahi Pono’s arrival on Maui has been clouded by controversy.
The most pressing issue for many on Maui is that Mahi Pono’s purchase of Ag land could also bring it almost total control over a huge share of the island’s fresh water. As is the case most everywhere in the arid west, fears that private control of public resources will result in lasting damage to the public trust are escalating as water becomes scarcer and more expensive almost daily.
Many local farmers and interested observers believe Trinitas was given a sweetheart deal when annexed because it was allowed twenty years to pay annexation fees at 3% interest, among other benefits. Now, OID’s water attorney at the time of annexation has been hired to manage Trinitas’s operation in Maui. O’Laughlin’s official title is Chief Operating Officer.
The founder of the Paris and O’Laughlin law firm, which represents several San Joaquin Valley entities on water issues as well as OID, O’Laughlin has said that he will remain affiliated with the law firm after he moves to Maui full-time. Even in the labyrinthine and incestuous world of western water, O’Laughlin’s new position is bound to raise eyebrows and foster inquiries.
Fresh off two court losses to the Oakdale Groundwater Alliance, O’Laughlin’s frequent collisions with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and creative circumlocutions of the law to promote water sales were clearly no problem for Trinitas/Mahi Pono. Instead, the man many Valley locals refer to as a water broker has most likely been hired to smooth Mahi’s Pono’s rough path to control of water rights for its massive farm operation.
Given ongoing legal problems for OID’s programs to promote water sales outside the region and Trinita’s still-controversial place in the district’s hierarchy of water users, O’Laughlin’s new position is bound to raise questions about conflicts of interest. But as long as the OID Board of Directors continues to include three members who follow to the letter O’Laughlin’s directives on water, there’s likely to be little change in district water policy.
The chief issue for in-district farmers in Oakdale has been and remains the opportunity to receive irrigation water for prices below the cost of delivery. Whether the attorney who helps that happen has a conflict of interest is irrelevant to them and therefore irrelevant to the board members under their control, and the same metric applies to Trinitas/Mahi Pono. Tim O’Laughlin’s job is to keep the water coming, and thus far he’s been able to do that, hence the expansion of his influence and power.
Bruce Frohman says
The optics of the attorney’s behavior is not good, but no evidence of illegal activity has been presented. Many public officials leave office with gravy jobs after providing special assistance to private entities.
Washington politicians leave office for high paying lobbying jobs. Regulators leave office for cushy jobs in the industry they regulated. The list is endless.
The people of Maui have a lot to worry about. Their water bills are about to increase greatly unless the State Government intervenes.
Shasta Dam will be raised 15 feet to provide water to Westlands Water District, probably thanks to some well placed campaign donations.
Great private wealth has been built using public largesse.
Voters do not seem to care, which is why deals keep happening at public expense.
Damon Woods says
It appears that the legal profession (is that an oxymoron ?) thinks it is ok to represent the private sector and the public sector on both sides of an issue. Maybe next up is to have a judge also be a defending attorney and the prosecuting attorney too? Why not also make him the jury too. Conflict of interest seems to not apply to this attorney, but then this attorney says that certain Board members of OID cannot be allowed to vote on stuff that they can benefit from… the old double standard again! Don’t do what I do, do what I say..
Hugh Janeus says
These are two totally different jobs in non-competitive geographies. This article implies that the attorney in question would sell out his attorney-client privilege for what I’m sure is a lower paying job. If this was the case, I doubt he would still be practicing law after so many years. Saying there’s a conflict of interest here would be like saying that if I worked for Trump in the Department of Health and Human Services, that I would have a conflict of interest if I moonlighted as a plumber and went to unplug Hillary Clinton’s toilet.
Eric Caine says
One of the most blatant and clearly false analogies ever. Really stunning.