Retired SLO County waste manager will keep his benefits for now — but fraud audit looms

Members of the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority Board of Directors listen to public comment from Arroyo Grande Mayor Jim Hill before discussing manager Bill Worrell in closed session.
Members of the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority Board of Directors listen to public comment from Arroyo Grande Mayor Jim Hill before discussing manager Bill Worrell in closed session. mvaughan@thetribunenews.com

The newly retired manager of San Luis Obispo County’s waste management agency will receive his retirement and health benefits even as the District Attorney’s Office investigates allegations that he spent as much as $430,000 in taxpayer funds on personal expenses.

The waste agency’s legal counsel told its board of directors Wednesday that absent a felony conviction, former Integrated Waste Management Authority General Manager Bill Worrell is entitled to receive the benefits.

But results of the DA’s investigation and an audit approved by the board Wednesday could change that.

Worrell was abruptly placed on leave Aug. 8 until Sept. 11, which the waste agency’s attorney said was his scheduled retirement date. However, legal counsel Jeffrey Minnery acknowledged at a board meeting Wednesday that Worrell was no longer an employee as of Aug. 23.

Worrell has not responded to several requests for comment from The Tribune.

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On Wednesday, the board voted 7-4 to appoint Michael Giancola as interim manager for three months, with the possibility for a three-month extension after a performance review, at a rate of $152,000 a year, Worrell’s ending salary.

Giancola will not receive any retirement or health benefits at his own request, Minnery said.

The board also passed a motion to direct the executive committee to work with Giancola to prepare a request for proposals for outside auditors to investigate the allegations against Worrell and submit findings to the committee.

After formally accepting Worrell’s resignation Wednesday, the members of the board also asked Minnery about possibly freezing Worrell’s state retirement benefits while the allegations of financial mismanagement hang over him and the agency.

Minnery advised against filing litigation necessary to do that based on accusations alone. Depending on the DA’s or auditor’s findings, the board may have grounds for a legal claims against Worrell in the future, Minnery said.

The Integrated Waste Management Authority was formed in 1994 to implement regional waste programs under a joint powers agreement among the county, the seven cities, and the community service districts.

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A report submitted to the agency by private investigator Carl Knudsen found a lack of documentation for $445,077 in expenses billed to an IWMA credit card issued to Worrell, and that some transactions appeared to “be personal in nature,” Knudsen wrote.

Knudsen additionally found that contractors received lucrative IWMA contracts without going through a competitive bidding process, among other findings.

He has not responded to Tribune requests for comment.

Agency attorney Ray Biering previously dismissed Knudsen’s report as a biased “hit piece.”

The report was privately funded by a “citizens group” that includes “friends of Cal Coast News,” a San Luis Obispo County-based news website (also doing business as Cal Coast Times), which lost a $1.1 million libel verdict in March 2017 related to an article that made similar allegations against Worrell and former contractor Charles Tenborg.

The website maintains the since-deleted article’s accuracy and is appealing the libel verdict.

Karen Velie, co-founder of Cal Coast News, previously told The Tribune that she doesn’t know the identities of all members of the unnamed citizens group or how much they paid Knudsen for his services. She has declined to identify members she does know, she said, at their request.

On June 28, the District Attorney’s Office sent the agency a letter alerting them of “an investigation currently being conducted by our office” and requesting documents under the California Public Records Act.

Specifically, the DA’s Office requested nine years worth of credit card statements and receipts, board meeting minutes related to the purchase of several vehicles and sections of IWMA’s policy manual regarding use of the credit card and retention and destruction of records.

The District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday said its Public Integrity Unit’s investigation remained ongoing.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify a statement made by Karen Velie.

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Cassandra Garibay 783-7628, @CassandraGari
Matt Fountain 781-7909, @mattfountain1