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Fairgrounds board member told of midway contract score changes weeks before it became public

A ticket stand sits behind a handful of vendors that sell fair food on the weekend as the Del Mar Fairgrounds lies empty
A ticket stand sits behind a handful of vendors that sell fair food on the weekend as the Del Mar Fairgrounds lies empty during the coronavirus pandemic on May 27, 2020.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In a deposition, a district employee said allegations that scores had been changed for a 2021 contract competition surfaced at an unusual meeting organized by former and current district employees

A board member of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which oversees the Del Mar Fairgrounds, learned in December that the scoring of proposals from two companies vying for a contract to run the midway at the 2021 fair had been improperly changed, according to deposition testimony from a district employee.

Less than two months after learning of the score-rigging, board member Don Mosier voted along with all other board members to give the contract for this year’s midway to the company that benefited from the changed scores. The board voted unanimously to give that contract to Ray Cammack Shows, with no comment from Mosier or any member.

The revelations came in a deposition given by Paul Blaney, director of sales and rentals and head of the concessions department at the district. They are the latest to come in an ongoing controversy over the midway contract for the 2021 fair that has roiled the district.

The 2021 fair was eventually cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a significantly scaled-down version was held instead. The contract with the changed scoring was never formally awarded.

However, the fair is back this year, opening Wednesday, June 8, albeit with a daily paid admission cap of 50,000 people and a run of 21 days, slightly shorter than the usual roughly month-long duration.

The allegations over last year’s contracts have boiled over into this year’s fair and led a judge to issue an injunction against the latest contract — a ruling that nearly derailed the event.

Board members were told at a Jan. 31 board meeting about the scoring change by attorney John Moot, who represented the losing company Talley Amusements. However, Blaney testified that Mosier was told the scores had been changed long before — at an extraordinary, 90-minute meeting Dec. 2 at the home of former Del Mar councilwoman and district board member Lee Haydu.

Blaney testified that during the meeting, retired district contracts manager Michael Ceragioli phoned in and related how the scores to determine the winner were changed. Ceragioli testified at his own deposition six weeks later that the changes were ordered by district CEO Carlene Moore — and that the scores were changed not once, but twice.

Blaney said that after Ceragioli spoke out, Mosier made no comment and had little visible reaction. “We were wearing face masks, so it was difficult to see anyone’s reaction,” Blaney testified. “But he was present when Mike was relaying that information over the phone.”

Mosier was not available for comment. The district’s marketing director, Jennifer Hellman, said in an email he was out of the country, and in a statement on behalf of the district she said Mosier was not the only board member aware of the allegations of rigged scores.

“The DAA Board was aware of Mr. Ceragioli’s allegations concerning the RFP for the 2021 fair — which was canceled due to the pandemic — well before the December 2 meeting, so Mr. Mosier did not raise these issues again,” the statement said.

Also at the meeting was Deanna Spehn, the policy director for state Senate president Toni Atkins of San Diego.

In a written statement, Atkins said she was told of the concerns and was troubled by the report.

“Accusations of this nature cast public doubt on a state agency that is critical to San Diego — I have concerns as well based on what has been reported publicly,” she said. “While I’m not privy to closed-session discussions, I’ve made my concerns known to the Board, and I will continue to monitor this situation closely.”

Haydu, the private meeting’s host, did not respond to several messages seeking comment on the meeting.

Moot, the lawyer for Talley, criticized Mosier for not speaking up about what he had learned long before Ceragioli’s deposition testimony became public. He said Ceragioli told him that he recalled Mosier saying at the meeting it was the first he had heard of the scores being changed, and called for an audit of the district.

“The testimony that a Board member was made aware of the conduct of the CEO in changing the scores two months before the losing contractor was awarded this $80 million dollar contract and that nothing was done raises some serious questions as to why,” he wrote in an email.

“It’s time for those responsible for oversight of this agency to request the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to conduct a thorough audit of any wrongdoing as has been the case at several of the other District Agricultural Associations.”

The meeting had been organized by former employees of the district, according to former employee Donna Ruhm, who was there. She said it was intended to air “concerns regarding continuous questionable contracting and hiring practices and the fragmented management style” of Moore, the current district CEO.

Many district workers had left in 2020 during a massive staff reduction driven largely by revenue loss from the cancellation of the 2020 fair because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Blaney’s testimony came in a lawsuit filed by Talley over the 2021 contract. The company contends it won the potentially five-year contract on merit, but the district instead illegally steered the contract to RCS.

On April 5, San Diego Superior Court Judge Kenneth Mendel ruled Talley had shown enough evidence that the contract scoring process for the 2021 fair was tainted to warrant an injunction, which blocked the contract awarded to RCS in January for this year’s fair.

At the time, the district warned the injunction may not only imperil the popular midway of rides and games, but could cause cancellation of the entire fair. However, within days both sides worked out an arrangement where RCS got 60 percent of the midway this year and Talley 40 percent.

The suit is ongoing but has been put on hold for the duration of the fair, which ends July 4.


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