DA charges Fairfax board member with embezzlement, voter fraud

Sep. 27—The Kern County District Attorney's Office announced charges Tuesday against an embattled member of the governing board for the Fairfax School District, a 2,700-student transitional kindergarten to eighth-grade district in southeast Bakersfield.

Palmer Moland was arrested and charged with seven felony counts, including the misappropriation of public funds, violating conflict of interest statutes, falsification of election documents and voter fraud.

A DA's news release notes the charges were the product of an investigation by the DA's Public Integrity Unit, after allegations of misconduct were reported by the Kern County grand jury, as well as an audit conducted by the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team.

Moland was not immediately available by phone Tuesday afternoon.

Charges this week are the latest event in a series of controversies that have plagued the first-term board member whose term expires in December. He's currently listed as one of eight candidates for the school board's November election.

The DA's office alleged that as a member of the school board, Moland ignored bylaws that restrict the expenditure of funds to hire a law firm at district expense to quash a motion to censure him, as well as to limit his own exposure to public records requests related to the censure. The release also alleges Moland's vote to employ the additional law firm with district funds presented a financial conflict of interest that Moland was obligated to avoid by abstaining from the vote, which was ultimately decided by a one-vote margin.

Noting that "residency within the district is a core criterion to qualify for office the office that Mr. Moland holds," DA Cynthia Zimmer also alleges he actually resided outside the district when he submitted filings with the Kern County Elections Department that stated he was living within the district's boundaries in order to qualify for the office he ultimately won.

The DA also claimed Moland did the same for the current election, and that he subsequently voted illegally in the 2018 and 2020 elections as a result of his filings with the local elections office.

"Elected public officials hold positions that demand the public's trust," Zimmer said in the news release. "When a public official obtains and holds such a position through deceptive and unlawful practices, the District Attorney's Public Integrity Unit will investigate and take actions necessary to hold offenders accountable."

In May of 2021, a grand jury report found Fairfax was being governed by a "school board in crisis," according to previous reporting in The Californian. The report also stated that removing Moland would "eliminate a major contributor to the dysfunction of the board."

In July of 2021, the Kern County Elections Office approved a recall effort against Moland and two of his fellow board members: Alma Rios, who's also listed on the November ballot; and Jose Luis Tapia, who is not.

About two months later, it was announced the effort failed to gather the required number of signatures; by this time, Moland had already been removed as board president but he remains a member of the board.

Then in April of 2022, an outside audit of the district by a state Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team accused Moland of inappropriately pushing the district to hire a law firm to stop the release of a personally damaging investigative report. The auditors also criticized Moland's efforts to get the district to pay him back for political campaign expenses, according to previous reporting in The Californian.

In response to the FCMAT report in April, Moland told The Californian that "mistakes were made," and that "nothing was intentionally done."

"I would never intentionally just try to use public funds for my own gain," he told The Californian at the time, in response to the FCMAT allegations.

The current configuration of the Fairfax School District is bounded on the north by Edison Highway, on the east by Vineland Road and Weedpatch Highway, on the south by Hermosa Road and on the west by Quantico Street, according to the district's website.