Few details have been aired about a criminal conflict-of-interest case involving a former top deputy in the County Assessor’s Office despite the attention it’s received as candidates Barbara Bry and Jordan Marks vie to lead the office.
As she runs for county assessor, Barbara Bry has pointed to a criminal conflict-of-interest case involving a former top staffer in the office as evidence new leadership is needed.
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Her opponent Jordan Marks, a chief deputy assessor who now serves as the office’s taxpayer advocate, argues the system worked to catch an isolated instance of corruption in the County Assessor/Recorder/Clerk’s Office.
The District Attorney’s Office in January accused Rolf Bishop, the assessor’s now-former chief information officer, of directing county contract work he oversaw to his wife Indra Bishop’s company and approving invoices that followed. Rolf Bishop, 73, pleaded guilty in May to a felony conflict-of-interest charge and is set to be sentenced next month.
But few details about what happened have been publicly aired despite the questions being raised by Bry as she and Marks vie to replace longtime Assessor Ernie Dronenburg.
A May lawsuit filed by the county and other public records offer a clearer picture of the accusations leveled against Bishop, when the county became aware of the alleged conflict and what happened after it was discovered.
At the center of both the criminal and civil allegations are a series of county contracts with Wave Technology Solutions Group, which was first hired by the assessor’s office almost eight years ago via three contracts for image distribution services, development work, maintenance support, and upgrades to the office’s aging computer systems. The county consummated three more contracts with the company in early 2020. A few years after the initial contracts were awarded, Bishop’s wife Indra Bishop, and her company became subcontractors of Wave and allegedly did county work.
This connection led the District Attorney’s Office and county to separately allege that Bishop was inappropriately involved with contracts that he had a financial interest in and that he violated state Government Code Section 1090, which bars that behavior.
Bishops’ attorney, Paul Pfingst, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the county’s allegations but in a September court filing generally denied the county’s claims. Former Wave executives and staffers could not be reached. Phone numbers for Wave and Indra Bishop’s company, EdTech Consulting Group, were out of service.
In early 2017, outside attorneys representing the county say Bishop introduced his wife and her company to Wave. She later interviewed with Wave. In March 2017, EdTech – which has also done business as Millennial Tech – entered into a subcontracting agreement with Wave that the county says Wave never disclosed.
Initially, EdTech didn’t do county work. The county alleges that changed in 2018 when Wave started billing the county for work performed by “Andy Sun” and another EdTech employee. County attorneys claim Wave used the pseudonym to hide Indra Bishop’s county work.
That fall, the county alleges Wave began overbilling the county for work by EdTech using a 1.33-hour multiplier with Rolf Bishop’s blessing.
“Beginning Oct 1st, WAVE will invoice 1.33 hours per hour reported by Andy Sun and Sunil Epari. This only applies to these 2 resources and only on the (business intelligence) project,” then-Wave director of sales Fred Woitt wrote in a September 2018 email with the subject line “notes from Rolf call 1:10 PM, 09/11/2018” and cited in the county lawsuit.
Lawyers for the county say Wave contracted with Indra Bishop’s company for work done by at least eight others who provided services between spring 2018 and November 2020 and that Wave “regularly increased the hours actually worked by these individuals and fraudulently billed the county for this additional time.”
Sometimes, attorneys claim, Wave used multipliers larger than the previously described 1.33-hour rate.
“Rolf continued to approve Wave LLC’s invoices for payment and Wave LLC then paid EdTech for the work actually performed by these individuals and kept the additional amounts from the overbilling,” attorneys wrote.
In December 2018, the county contracting officer also sent notices to Wave that Rolf Bishop had taken over as the county contracting officer’s representative overseeing its county contracts.
County lawyers noted that Bishop in state-mandated Form 700 income disclosures filed in 2017, 2018, and 2019 listed his interest in his wife’s company and also Wave as a source of income for her company.
Yet the lawyers allege the Bishops and others took steps to hide EdTech’s county work.
“When asked by the county whether EdTech was providing services on the (County Assessor’s Office) contracts, Rolf lied and said that it was not,” attorneys for the county wrote.
County lawyers argued Bishop misrepresented what was happening to keep the county from digging into EdTech’s work with Wave.
“The county reasonably relied on Rolf’s misrepresentations, thus delaying its discovery of defendants’ illegal and fraudulent conduct,” attorneys wrote.
County attorneys also described a December 2019 email exchange where Patrick Dennis, Wave’s then-engineering director, and Indra Bishop discussed using her maiden name when meeting another Wave employee.
“Have you given any further thought to how you would introduce yourself to Lan?” Dennis wrote. “Last we talked, you had some thoughts on a different persona and I was waiting on this before suggesting a meeting.”
A month later, Wave sales director Woitt wrote in an email that he met with Rolf Bishop to discuss the contracts and that Bishop “didn’t mention Indra in the email because he can’t but he did at my lunch.”
The county’s lawsuit says the county didn’t recognize that Bishop had an interest in the Wave contracts until a possible conflict was first flagged in late December 2019.
County spokesman Mike Workman said an anonymous tip came into the county’s Office of Ethics and Compliance, which investigates alleged wrongdoing at the county. The county counsel’s office and the District Attorney’s Office also eventually dug in.
Meanwhile, the county consummated three previously approved contracts with Wave in January 2020.
The lawsuit states that the county ethics investigation that ultimately revealed there was “fraud and other misconduct” concluded months later in October 2020.
In late September 2020, the county’s purchasing and contract department notified Wave that another county Assessor’s Office staffer would take over Bishop’s oversight duties for its three contracts.
Bishop was out at the county by early November. In the months after his departure, the county pension system reports Bishop’s retirement payouts totaled about $2,000 a month.
About a year later in 2021, the county notified Wave that it would be terminating three contracts that might have otherwise run through 2024.
This January, the District Attorney’s Office charged Bishop. In May, he pleaded guilty to a single felony Government Code 1090 violation. Bishop’s monthly retirement payout fell to $953 following his guilty plea.
A week after Bishop’s guilty plea, the county filed its lawsuit seeking to recover an estimated $5 million in previous contract payouts from the Bishops, Wave, some of its former leaders and employees and one of its lenders.
Around the time Bishop pleaded guilty, the county auditor’s office released its review of internal controls over county Assessor’s Office contracts. Auditors noted the office had 18 contracts totaling $17.7 million.
“Within the scope of the audit, the internal controls over ARCC’s grant/contract management and monitoring practices appear to be adequately designed and operating as intended,” auditors wrote.
Marks argued the audit confirmed the Bishop case was “a one-off situation with controls in place that worked.”
“Every top-tier organization has systems in place to prevent and capture a bad apple. The county has that system in place, and according to the district attorney, the system worked with the internal capture,” Marks wrote in an email. “The suggestion that there is corruption is political rhetoric and is unfounded.”
He also said the office is “continuing to invest in key education, ethics training, and conflict-of-interest policies that provide accountability.”
Bry, who in an August campaign email raised questions about the Bishop case, unsurprisingly has a different take. She thinks the Bishop case signals the need for change.
“I believe this office needs new leadership and a complete review of its operation,” Bry said. “I believe that it’s time to bring in a well-qualified person from the outside.”
Originally printed in VoSD.org By Lisa Halverstadt / October 21, 2022
Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego’s biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region’s behavioral health crisis, and more. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (619) 325-0528.
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