I-Team: Woman Speaks Out on Ranching Empire - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Woman Speaks Out on Ranching Empire

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The SNWA owns seven rustic ranches in Spring Valley. The SNWA owns seven rustic ranches in Spring Valley.
The Harbecke ranch is one SNWA purchased. The Harbecke ranch is one SNWA purchased.
George Knapp speaks with Debra Rivero. George Knapp speaks with Debra Rivero.
Hank Vogler owns one of the few area ranches still in private hands. Hank Vogler owns one of the few area ranches still in private hands.

SPRING VALLEY, Nev. -- The Southern Nevada Water Authority has spent huge sums of public money to gobble up a string of rural ranches because of the water underneath them. SNWA claims the ranches are operating in the black, but a whistleblower has come forward to tell a much different story.

The I-Team has reported previously about how much was spent to acquire the ranches, and it's quite a pile of money, but until now, no one on the inside was willing to talk about the operations of the ranches.

Debra Rivero worked for the water district for many years and was a valued employee but when she started working as office assistant at the ranches, she realized she had entered a world unto itself, one that we co-owners never get to see.

The SNWA owns seven rustic ranches in Spring Valley. The public may not know it, but they are in the ranching business because of a SNWA spending spree. The authority has spent nearly $80 million to buy a string of ranches, tens of thousands of acres, plus cows, sheep and farm equipment.

As the I-Team first reported, SNWA paid many times the market value for the ranches. El Tejon ranch, valued at $1.1 million went for $32 million. The Harbecke ranch, now headquarters for SNWA's empire, with a market value of a $250,000 fetched close to $5 million from the water agency.

"I did everything, from paying the bills to weighing the trucks, every penny that came in, and every penny that came out, I was responsible for," said Debra Rivero, a former SNWA employee.

She worked for the water district in Las Vegas for 17 years before moving north to run the office for the ranches. From the beginning, she said, she was struck by how little oversight there was by SNWA.

"The whole operation is very secretive. They don't encourage anybody to come up and take a look and tour the place. It's just all very secretive."

How secretive? Rivero says the first ranch manager, who took the job after his ranch was purchased for six times its market value, was given a year's salary when he left, with the condition that he keep quiet.

Outspoken critic Hank Vogler who owns one of the few area ranches still in private hands, was offered a consulting contract if he would button his lip. Former White Pine District Attorney Richard Sears landed the best deal of all. He agreed to drop his planned opposition to the water grab in exchange for a brand new well on his ranch, plus irrigation equipment, plus nearly 400 acre feet of water per year, with a value of more than $1.5 million dollars.

"It's all in the contract," Rivero said. "Just so he'd be quiet and withdraw the protest. I think the worst thing was the payoffs for people to be quiet, to stop protesting. It was the most horrendous thing I've seen."

The ranch operations bled money for a few years but now, according to SNWA's accounting, they are in the black, earning $260,000 last year from sales of hay and beef. Neighboring ranchers scoff at the math, saying SNWA's deep pockets mean this ranching operation doesn't face the same challenges as an actual ranch, standing on its own.

What other rancher has nine committee meetings to pick a design for a brand, for instance or has a government sugar daddy to repair equipment or buy new trucks? Although the ranches supposedly made a profit, the costs to the public keep going up.

The operating budget was $500,000 a year in 2007, it went to $750,000 in 2008 and was bumped to $850,000 last year. Expenses that would count against a real rancher's bottom line are not included, Rivero said. For example, SNWA reported it sold $1 million worth of hay.

"That doesn't include the fertilizer, the irrigation equipment, the employees time, everything else," Rivero said.

She adds, she was told by the current manager and others about suspected widespread theft by employees. Cows, sheep, equipment, even saddles disappeared but didn't show up on any ledger.

"I kept bringing it up. 'Hey there is unethical stuff going on up here' and the Vegas office didn't seem to want to hear it. They didn't want to talk to me about it. They didn't want to say anything."

Veteran rancher Dean Baker, an opponent of the water grab, says all of the public money being plowed into the ranches will be wasted once the pumping begins because Spring Valley will be sucked dry.

"It will kill the ranches when they pump it. If they don't know that, they are way stupider than I think they are," Baker said.

Scott Huntley, the chief public information officer for SNWA issued the following statement:

"The Southern Nevada Water Authority is committed to operating and maintaining its Spring Valley holdings in a responsible manner to protect both employees and equipment. As a not-for-profit public agency, the SNWA adheres to strict policies and procedures focused on preventing harassment, workplace violence and drug use. Senior officials from the agency are actively involved in managing the properties. Our Environmental Health and Safety and Corporate Security Department makes regular site visits along with our Fleet division, Finance and Facilities to conduct inspections and verify appropriate business practices. We maintain strict business practice and inventory controls and have had no verifiable reports of theft on the ranch properties."

Rivero told the I-Team a lot more about the operation of the ranches, and I-Team reporter George Knapp will report that information in the days ahead.

Rivero left the ranch operation because of what she said was a hostile work environment and has filed a complaint with federal authorities. Future I-Team reports will have explosive details about what happened to her, and what she saw.

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