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Local Nonprofit Faces Funding Scrutiny Amid Political Protest Allegations


A local nonprofit organization operating in Imperial County finds itself under scrutiny after allegations arose of potential violations regarding grant funding. Ryan Kelley, the representative of District 4 on the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, has called upon the Chief Executive Office to investigate the grants received by this organization. 

The inquiry was prompted by concerns that the nonprofit may have participated in a protest expressing support for Palestine, an action that could potentially contravene established guidelines. This revelation has raised questions about the organization’s compliance with regulations and the appropriate use of public funds. 

Kelley expressed concern over the Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition’s participation in a pro-Palestinian demonstration during El Centro and Calexico Christmas Parades. Kelley emphasized that county regulations strictly prohibit the allocation of funds for political actions. 

This group is known to have close ties with Calexico City Council members Raul Urena and Gilberto Manzanarez who are facing potential removal from office due to a special recall election scheduled for April 16.

On June 30, 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Senate Bill 125, which authorized the state’s assistance in the development of Imperial County’s lithium resource within the Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area, known as Lithium Valley. Among the provisions of SB 125, the bill had appropriated $5,000,000 from the State General Fund to the County of Imperial for various lithium-related activities, including, but not limited to, funding the development of a Programmatic Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) and distributing grants to local community-based organizations for engagement on the PEIR.

On July 26, 2022, per Minute Order #17, the County had agreed with a consultant firm to prepare the Salton Sea Renewable Resource Specific Plan, PEIR, and the Lithium Development Infrastructure Assessment. 

The County sought to support community-based education, engagement, participatory research, and outreach efforts on the Salton Sea Renewable Resource Specific Plan and the PEIR created by the County for lithium and geothermal energy development efforts in Imperial County.

This engagement aimed to encourage meaningful public input and involvement in the process to better inform the evaluation of the environmental impacts and lead agency decision-making resulting from proposed projects in the specified development area.

A selection committee appointed by the County Executive Office reviewed and scored the proposals to provide a recommendation for the responsive and responsible organizations, whose proposal was deemed most advantageous to the County per the evaluation criteria outlined in the Request for Proposals.

The five bidding organizations had scored closely in the eight categories and held unique advantages to ensure the local community was engaged. The total amount allocated from Senate Bill 125 for this program was $800,000. The County had withheld ten percent for tribal engagements and contingencies. The total amount of the award to the organizations was not to exceed $720,000.

The agencies that received funding are Los Amigos de la Comunidad-$89,000; Raizes-$72,000; Comité Cívico Del Valle-$363,000; IV LGBT Resource Center-$26,000; and Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition-$170,000.

“I became concerned that some other the grant funds were being used to promote this political action so I asked for a review of those contracts and to ensure the public funds and our fiduciary responsibilities are being upheld,” Kelley said. 

Kelley pointed out that the signed agreement with the groups mandated monthly invoicing and quarterly reports. Out of the five groups, only Amigos de la Comunidad and the Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center have maintained compliance with these requirements.

“The other three had not complied. No invoices have been submitted to the county, therefore, we cannot discern if any money was used inappropriately. We sent notice to all the groups to provide their information and we are awaiting those invoices to be able to review and ascertain if it was used inappropriately. But at this moment in time they are in breach of the agreement they signed,” Kelley said. 

In a pointed critique, Jacob Rodriguez, a local resident, condemned Supervisor Kelley for what he perceives as an attempt to stifle free speech and unfairly target a nonprofit organization. Rodriguez, expressing concern over potential violations of the First Amendment, disclosed that the Board received copies of a letter submitted to California Attorney General Rob Bonta during his recent visit to Imperial County. The letter urged a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into the alleged infringement of protected speech rights by the Board, drawing parallels to a recent settlement between Kern County and the DOJ for similar violations. Rodriguez emphasized that the audit, initiated under then-Chair Ryan Kelley’s tenure, was an unconstitutional act of government revenge. Furthermore, he asserted that the County expanded the audit to other organizations to deflect suspicion surrounding the controversial investigation.

Kelley rebutted saying that this was not about their free speech but a concern if public funds are being used for a protest and having IV Equity, a county contractor, disrupting a public parade without a permit and publicizing it on their social media platforms.

“The application from IV Equity is paying the salary of two individuals so how do I account for their time and what they are doing? Are they billing us for their time at the parade and protesting? I can’t tell you because they haven’t billed us yet.  Mr. Rodriguez can question but my intent is to ensure that the funds are used appropriately and the public trust is maintained,” Kelley said.

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