Bakersfield city firefighter Jeff Heinle is running for the 3rd District Kern County supervisor seat against incumbent Mike Maggard in June.
But his candidacy, announced Thursday, has already triggered an explosive bout of accusations and conflict between sitting supervisors.
And marijuana is at the center of it all.
In Tuesday interviews with KERN Radio talk show hosts Scott Cox and Ralph Bailey, Maggard accused fellow Supervisor Leticia Perez and her husband of secretly collecting “illegal pot money” from the marijuana industry and using it to smear his reputation in order to help Heinle unseat him.
Heinle, Perez, her husband Fernando Jara and the two marijuana industry leaders Maggard named denied his claims Thursday.
Maggard isn’t backing down.
It is unprecedented for a sitting supervisor to be involved in the recruitment of a candidate against a fellow supervisor, he said Thursday.
“In light of how sleazy this is, it doesn’t surprise me they would deny the connection,” Maggard said.
Maggard’s Tuesday charges were dramatic.
“There’s a bit of a scam, a fraud being foisted upon Kern County, I think,” Maggard told Bailey. “There is a concerted effort by three people in particular to convince our community of something, first of all, that’s not true, and, second of all, they’re doing it, and I think in a cowardly way, by trying to escape using their own names.”
Maggard named them: Riverside marijuana attorney Ben Eilenberg, local pot shop owner David Abbasi, and Jara.
Perez, he said, endorsed her husband’s involvement.
“We know that, with her full knowledge, with her cooperation, with her acquiescence, he’s neck-deep in this. I think it’s a specific effort to remove me from the Board of Supervisors. Why? Because I am the opposing vote to her agenda to have marijuana proliferate in Kern County. She is free to do that,” Maggard said.
What Perez isn’t free to do, he said, is use “illegal pot shop money to fund that effort and not reveal that to the public. And that’s what I think is the fraud that is being foisted upon Kern County.”
On Thursday, Maggard laid out his thinking in greater detail, explaining why he believes his claims against Perez and Jara are true.
In October, Perez was the only supervisor who voted against banning commercial and medical marijuana in unincorporated Kern County.
Prior to that, her husband had done work for marijuana industry groups.
Jara also ran Ryan Nance’s unsuccessful Bakersfield City Council campaign against Bruce Freeman.
Not long after the supervisors’ vote on marijuana, a series of video advertisements hit social media and radio that attacked Maggard, his support for the ban, his idea of creating a mobile medical marijuana delivery service and his record as a public servant.
The advertisements were launched, Maggard claims, through the same channels Jara used to launch attack ads against Freeman.
“The radio time went through the same marketing company as Freeman,” Maggard told Bailey, adding that mass texts went out in both campaigns from the same numbers.
“It’s Fernando Jara, with the cooperation of her, of Leticia Perez,” he said. “I know the candidate that they are recruiting has been promised all the marijuana money he’ll need to be able to put his campaign together. He will be well-funded. He has a passion about marijuana and has been told, ‘Hey, we’ll take care of this. We’ll make it easy for you. We’ll do the dirty work. We’ll dirty him up and we’ll give you the money that is necessary.’”
Does Maggard have proof that Jara and Perez are involved?
The situation, he said, looks extremely suspicious.
“If Jara did it against Freeman, is it Jara doing it against me?,” Maggard said.
Heinle said Maggard’s attack is a political tactic aimed at his fledgling, grass-roots campaign.
“I’m not angry. I’m not mad,” Heinle said. “Mike is just doing what he needs to do to keep his job.”
Heinle wasn’t surprised about the nature of the accusations, either.
“When we decided to do this, I knew, at some point, ‘I’m going to get pulled into this cannabis thing,’” Heinle said.
Heinle does support medicinal marijuana, he said, because he watched it help his wife’s sister survive fatal cancer for more than two years when she’d been given five months to live.
But Heinle denied that he is being backed by pro-marijuana organizations.
“I am not associated with cannabis in any way, shape or form,” he said. “I’m not going to take cannabis money.”
Has he ever met or been involved with David Abbasi or Ben Eilenberg?
“I haven’t met with any of those guys and I probably won’t meet with any of those guys just to stay aboveboard,” he said. “I’m not beholden to any special interest group.”
What about his connection to Perez and Jara?
Heinle said he was not recruited by Perez and Jara, though they were there the night he made the decision to run, and they are not involved in running his campaign.
“I have a relationship with Leticia. We’ve been friends for 10 years,” he said. “Leticia has not endorsed me. Leticia has not given me money.”
Perez also said she is not involved in Heinle’s campaign.
“No — other than being his friend. I think the world of him and I think he would make a wonderful supervisor,” she said. “He is a decent, kind, moral person who genuinely cares about people and genuinely cares about the county.”
Jara said he met once with Heinle to show him some of the basic numbers about the campaign. The numbers weren’t good.
“I had one conversation with Jeff when he had already decided to (run),” Jara said. “I was honest with him. That’s a really uphill battle to win that race.”
Heinle said he still plans to run, in part to hold Maggard accountable and make him work to hold his seat — a seat Heinle believes Maggard has become complacent in.
When Maggard first ran for Kern County supervisor in 2006, he said, Heinle worked on his campaign.
The upcoming contest, he said, is a win-win for Kern County. Voters get energized new blood or a re-energized Maggard.
“I’m running. I’m still in the organizational phase,” Heinle said. “I haven’t even gotten my business cards yet. I just pulled my petition-in-lieu form on Tuesday.”
He’s been delayed after being laid up for five weeks after hernia surgery.
Maggard, in contrast, told Bailey he is ready to go and Heinle won’t be able to get away from the marijuana issue.
“We are rolled up. Ready to go. We have this thing lined up,” Maggard said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be one stinkin’, stinky mess between now and then. And if Heinle thinks — he’s a very naive guy about things — if he thinks this doesn’t stick to him, he’s very naive. This sticks to him. It’s messy and it’s ugly.”
Supervisor Perez said Maggard is, in his mind, connecting things that aren’t connected.
Her husband has done work for out-of-county marijuana interests.
But she said the pair made sure, before she voted on the issue in June, that that work didn’t represent a conflict of interest.
“Fernando had contracts that were ending. He was doing work out of the area,” Perez said.
They took the issue to Kern County Counsel Mark Nations, the county’s top lawyer.
“We went to Nations for optics. We didn’t believe we had a conflict of interest,” Jara said.
But, he said, “we knew our political enemies would try hurt us.”
Nations saw everything, Jara said.
“We sent over the detailed contract of every business contract I was involved in and he grilled me for an hour on them,” he said.
Nations interviewed Perez as well and determined she didn’t have a conflict of interest. Perez said Nations issued a memo to that effect. On Thursday, Nations confirmed it.
“I concluded there was no conflict,” he said.
“I’m not involved in Jeff Heinle’s campaign. I’m not involved in the groups going after (Maggard),” Perez said.
At the center of the conflict are a series of advertisements and videos aimed at Maggard, calling him “Mad” Mike Maggard. Others bash him for his three public retirements, his “$900,000 beach house” and claim he takes six days off a week.
He said those claims are false.
Maggard said the advertisements aim to hide where they are from.
But Ben Eilenberg said some of them are clearly marked as being from the Committee for Safer Neighborhoods and Schools — a group Eilenberg represents.
Those ads weren’t coordinated with Perez or Jara, or meant to help Heinle, he said.
“Nobody in my group or in my control has done anything to collaborate with her — to run a candidate against Supervisor Maggard,” Eilenberg said.
He didn’t even know Heinle’s last name until a reporter mentioned it.
“I’m not coordinating a campaign with Fernando regarding Jeff. As far as I know, we have not paid a dime to Fernando Jara,” Eilenberg said.
What about the similar text message ads and other digital links between the campaign against Bruce Freeman and the Committee for Safer Schools’ ads attacking Mike Maggard?
“It’s quite possible that Mr. Jara and I used the same vendor. When the committee is running something in Kern we try to use local vendors,” Eilenberg said.
Or, he said, the texts could have been sent through a generic voice-over-IP tool — making it look like they were from the same source.
Jara said the vendors that make political ads locally work for many people.
“(Maggard’s) looking at vendors who are being hired to do this. They’re used by (political action committees) in this area,” Jara said. “Those are not my PACs.”
Eilenberg said not all the ads attacking Maggard were from his group.
Those that didn’t have identification – like a 12-days-of-Christmas themed ad attacking Maggard personally – weren’t done by the Committee for Safer Neighborhoods and Schools.
David Abbasi, who was also targeted by Maggard, said he isn’t involved in any of the ads in any way, other than the fact he saw them and shared them on his Facebook page for the Central Valley Cannabis Association.
“I was surprised that he would call me out by name and call me a fraud and a scam. It became clear that this was some political attack,” Abbasi said. “I had nothing to do with the creation of the post. I did not pay for any of these attack posts he was speaking about.”
Abbasi said he knows Fernando Jara, an advocate for cannabis.
“We have no professional relationship,” Abbasi said.
This dramatic accusation of unethical, possibly illegal activity by one sitting member of the Kern County Board of Supervisors against another is highly unusual.
Perez said she believes Maggard’s concerns will be dealt with and everybody will move on.
“It won’t affect me at all. Once the facts are clarified, I think everything will go back to normal. I’m ready to get back to the table and move on,” she said.
Eilenberg said Maggard isn’t likely to see criticism of his behavior fade away.
In October, when he led the charge to ban commercial and medicinal cannabis, Maggard accused medical marijuana patients of urinating, defecating and fornicating around dispensaries.
That, Eilenberg said, made a lot of people angry.
“I do think that Supervisor Maggard is probably facing some pretty bad backlash from the industry and the families of people who need medicinal cannabis,” he said. “I understand he’s looking for a scapegoat, but ultimately it seems like him facing the consequences of some very improper and insulting statements about cancer patients and others who need medicinal cannabis.”
Heinle said he will move forward with his campaign without marijuana money.
He won’t coordinate with cannabis groups or labor groups that might be unhappy with Maggard’s stance on county contracts.
But he can’t stop them from running ads against Maggard, Heinle said.
Maggard, for his part, is ready to fight for re-election.
All of which could make for a dramatic contest over the next five months.