County CEO Says Union Chief Owes Assessor Apology

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Monday, May 17, 2010 | Orange County CEO Tom Mauk wants union chief Nick Berardino to publicly apologize to Assessor Webster Guillory for allegations of corruption in Guillory’s office that Berardino made at a public meeting.

“Bottom line, these are management and communications issues,” Mauk said late Friday. “Webster’s been wrongly accused.”

At a March county supervisors meeting, Berardino, general manger of the Orange County Employees Association, alleged that Guillory was purposely not collecting taxes owed by businesses in the county and that the missed collections could have cost taxpayers nearly $125 million.

Berardino also alleged corruption regarding an ongoing computer upgrade in the assessor’s office by showing a video with employee concerns.

Mauk issued his comments on Friday hours after District Attorney Tony Rackauckas issued a report that cleared Guillory of any wrongdoing. Rackauckas’ office had been looking into the employee allegations for several weeks.

The CEO went on to say that Berardino’s actions typify what is wrong with public policy today.

“Nick and everybody needs to tone down these kinds of attacks where the facts aren’t really known,” said Mauk, who will provide supervisors with a review of the case at Tuesday’s regular meeting. “Don’t come and accuse somebody of malfeasance and criminal activity when you don’t have all the facts.”

Berardino said he is not quarreling with the conclusions of the DA probe, but will not be issuing an apology for going public with what he said were legitimate concerns about possible public corruption that were brought to his attention by workers.

“Tom’s remarks unfortunately are designed to keep employees from coming forward and to suppress dirty laundry being aired in public,” Berardino said.

Berardino alleged that Guillory purposely avoided collecting what are known as possessory interest taxes, taxes that companies owe for their use of government property. He said the uncollected taxes totaled as much as $125 million over three decades.

Regarding the computer system upgrade, Berardino said Guillory improperly benefited a county computer contractor with free staff assistance.

Berardino added that employees were fearful of retaliation but were ringing alarm bells anyway because they felt Guillory wasn’t conducting business properly. The DA report concluded employees spoke up because they feared that the assessor’s office would be targeted for layoffs because of money being wasted and taxes not collected.

Three different ongoing reviews — by the auditor, the CEO and this latest from the DA — all seem to indicate that Guillory’s office has suffered from bad communication and chronic cost overruns, but not corruption.

“The CEO has been under enormous pressure criticizing his performance regarding the IT function of the county by reports issued from the performance auditor,” Berardino said. “So it’s understandable why he would take such an aggressive tone to hide the tens of millions in cost overruns for IT projects under his watch.”

Berardino also said going public ensured that the DA reviewed the allegations and that employees would be protected. Rackauckas’ office has been accused of not aggressively pursuing public corruption cases. And, Berardino noted, this is the county that went bankrupt in 1994 because people weren’t willing to speak up when they saw a treasurer going off the tracks.

The last few weeks provided a window in to the maneuvering that takes place duing these kinds of probes. Senior District Attorney Bill Feccia, who headed the probe into Guillory’s office, came close to scolding employees in public, challenging them to come forward in a letter.

That drew a rebuke from Berardino, who said the union had already provided witness names.

“That was a big challenge, overcoming people’s fears,” Feccia said. “When you go public before bringing it to the appropriate agency, you have the tendency to drive people underground.”

Feccia said workers eventually opened up following another letter promising confidentiality. And the investigation was aided by the other ongoing reviews from the county auditor, CEO’s office and the State Board of Equalization.

“That enabled us to get to the facts quickly,” Feccia said.

Feccia said his investigators did a good job of learning the Byzantine regulations that govern possessory interest taxes.

“Tax law isn’t something ordinarily the district attorney’s office gets into. But whenever we enter a new area, we have to become competent and do it rapidly. They have to get up on the applicable area of law.”

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