Bakersfield

Audit exposed Kern Co. Fair’s glaring issues. Only one criminal charge resulted. Here’s why.

Two years after the Kern County Fair, its professional staff, and board members were skewered in a scathing state audit depicting financial mismanagement, Kern County prosecutors announced their first – and likely only – charge against an official with the fair.

Last week, prosecutors announced they were charging William Joseph Herbert, a maintenance supervisor for the Fair district, with three counts of felony grand theft.

The state audit, which launched a public integrity probe by the Kern County District Attorney’s office, included allegations of $130,000 in government-issued credit card spending with no supporting receipts, $30,000 in excessive and illegal out-of-state travel expenses, misuse of state time – where employees would report that they worked full days, but they were observed running personal errands and were frequently not at work – and misuse of state vehicles.

What was Herbert’s crime?

Stealing 47,290 pounds of scrap metal from the fair to personally collect the proceeds of recycling them.

Based on the counts, it is estimated Herbert made at least $2,850 through his theft of the metal.

California’s State Auditor never never named the Kern County Fair as the agricultural district responsible for the alleged “gross mismanagement” in her 2019 report, but it took little time to for the public to determine.

So how, exactly, did such incredible claims only yield a single charge over scrap metal?

California’s whistleblower law, which Kern County prosecutors blame state officials for forcing them to start an investigation “from scratch.”

“The state of California stood behind the Whistleblower Act and did not share the investigation with us,” District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer said.

“They made these findings and they published these findings, yet the evidence they had, that they drew these conclusions from, were not shared with us.”

Kern County prosecutors closed their investigation into the Fair, finding that the board’s violation of state law related to out-of-state travel and purchases was likely ascribed to bad legal advice from a now-retired attorney with the California Department of Justice.

Board members repaid excess money spend after the audit revealed the incorrect advice, Zimmer said.

With no other evidence available from state auditors, Kern County closed its investigation, netting the single scrap metal case.

“Our Public Integrity investigators conducted a thorough investigation into areas highlighted in the audit,” Zimmer said in a release. “Where evidence of criminal misconduct was identified, appropriate charges have been filed. The Kern County Fair is an integral part of our community, and the results of the audit and these charges should serve as a reminder of all involved to take management of the 15th District’s funds seriously, and thus protect the future of the Kern County Fair for future generations.”

The Kern County Fair is currently slated to return on Sept. 22 through Oct. 3.

Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.