Brian Passaro, former chief of Santa Barbara County’s Mosquito and Vector Management District, was arrested earlier this month for allegedly spending public money on personal expenses during his three-year tenure with the small government agency.
Though the exact amount of misappropriated funds is still being determined — Senior Deputy District Attorney Brian Cota said it’s likely in the range of $4,000-$10,000 — Passaro is charged with one felony count of theft of public monies and, if convicted, faces time behind bars. He posted a $25,000 bail on July 17, and his arraignment is scheduled for August 10.
The Mosquito and Vector Management District (MVMD), an independent special district that employs seven people and has an annual budget of approximately $900,000, “controls and monitors disease-carrying insects, rodents, and other vectors such as mosquitoes,” according to its website. Its seven-member Board of Trustees, who are paid $100/month, does the staff hiring and firing, and the district is funded with property taxes, as well as federal and state grants.
By the time he left, Passaro was making $95,000 a year, about half of what other special district managers in the area make. He was arrested in Sonoma County, where he currently lives and, until very recently, worked as administrative director of The Children’s Village of Sonoma County. Passaro has been unreachable for comment, and it’s not clear if he has secured legal representation.
Hired in S.B. in October 2008, Passaro stepped down from his general manager post in October 2011 after a report was issued by Santa Barbara’s auditor-controller office suggesting Passaro used a county-issued credit card to make purchases described as “potentially excessive and non-business related,” including for alcohol, children’s meals, golf shoes, and hotel movies. It noted Passaro consistently failed to submit itemized receipts, instead reporting only total amounts he was later reimbursed for. The district’s credit card expenditures, it further noted, increased by 328 percent after Passaro came on board.
The District Attorney’s Office’s own report, completed June 27, further alleges Passaro used the credit card to buy toys at Disneyland, faster Amazon.com shipping, pizza on Superbowl Sunday, and meals with County Supervisor Doreen Farr that she said never took place. It also detailed how Passaro submitted a receipt for gas for the district’s Ford Fusion hybrid that showed a total for gallons that was larger than the vehicle’s fuel-tank capacity.
The audit and investigation concluded, among other things, that there were “significant deficiencies in the MVMD’s existing travel and reimbursement policy,” a “lack of transparency in expenditures charged to the credit card,” and “lack of oversight by the Board of Trustees.” When a DA investigator confronted Passaro with the findings, the phone conversation didn’t last long. “Prior to the end of the interview he either hung up the phone or the call was dropped,” the report reads. “He did not try to call me back.” (See a full list of expenses and allegations in the attached PDFs below.)
The issue came to a head in July 2011 when MVMD bookkeeper Carrie Troup called Auditor-Controller Bob Geis with her concerns. She had already notified the Board of Trustees, which was reportedly conducting its own internal investigation but didn’t come to any final conclusions by the time Geis’s report was released. Shortly after, Passaro agreed to the pay the district back $1,917.96.
Troup and other district staffers told investigators that there was no written credit-card-use policy but that they thought it was to be used primarily for gas while out in the field or for lodging and meals during training conferences. MVMD administrative assistant Jessica Sprigg told the District Attorney’s Office that when she asked Passaro what the guidelines were for using the credit card, he reportedly responded, “Do you want to know the rules or how to bend them?”
A source involved in Passaro’s hiring admitted Passaro may be guilty of a “healthy dose of stupid” for his reported misdeeds but also noted he should be credited with expanding the district’s coverage and service farther into North County. The source, explaining around 10-12 general manager applicants were vetted in the summer of 2008, also said Passaro led a monitoring program to more scientifically predict where mosquito breeding grounds would be located, and he helped reduce the use of toxic pesticides during mitigation efforts.
Before he moved to Santa Barbara, Passaro was a central player in a 2008 scandal that led to the ousting of the Coachella Valley Mosquito and Vector Control District’s general manager, attorney, and board president. According to reports from Palm Springs–based The Desert Sun, Passaro — at the time a district administrator — was fired from the Coachella Valley agency in February 2008 without explanation. He worked there for more than seven years. (According to other sources, however, Passaro voluntarily stepped down from his at-will position.)
Two weeks later during the public-comment session of the district’s Board of Trustees meeting, Passaro made a number of damning allegations against then-district general manager Donald Gomsi, claiming Gomsi accessed pornography on his office computer during business hours, sexually harassed female employees, and directed an employee to forge tennis tournament passes. An internal investigation determined the allegations were true, and Gomsi resigned in September 2008.
The fallout continued when Passaro claimed he was retaliated against for being a whistleblower. He filed a lawsuit against the district that went nowhere. The Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office, explained Deputy DA Cota, has subpoenaed all records pertaining to Passaro’s employment with Coachella Valley.