The Orange County District Attorney's probe into Orange County Assessor Webster Guillory continues to move forward with the senior assistant district attorney in charge of the review saying that several employees at the office have begun to cooperate.
The workers at the assessor's office allege that Guillory has been allowing certain large businesses to escape as much as $125 million in taxes over the past three decades. They also allege that the office improperly used government assets in the development of a new computer system.
Senior Assistant District Attorney Bill Feccia said late last week that his investigators had met with several employees at the assessor's office and had productive interviews. More are scheduled for this week, Feccia said.
A decision on whether to initiate a full investigation is expected later this month. As of now, the probe is officially being called an "inquiry."
The issue came to public view in March with union leader Nick Berardino making the allegations before the county supervisors' public comment period during their regular meeting.
At the meeting, Berardino said he was taking the unusual step of announcing the allegations because employees feared retaliation from Guillory. Guillory maintains he has broken no laws and says the allegations are politically motivated because he faces a reelection challenge in June.
The interviews with employees almost didn't happen because Feccia and Berardino became involved in a rarely seen spat over the public nature of the accusations and critiques over how the district attorney handles complaints involving elected officials.
District attorney officials were uncomfortable with the method Berardino chose for publicizing employee concerns. They felt that coming out at a public meeting had the potential of chilling witness cooperation.
Berardino replied that the most chilling effect upon investigations involving elected officials was the district attorney's office and their unwillingness to check into allegations of official corruption.
"There's a major concern in Orange County about the district attorney's lack of interest in pursuing cases which involve possible wrongdoing of politicians. So it seemed that the best way to put this issue on the DA's radar screen was to bring it to light during a public meeting," Berardino said last week.
Berardino's public calls for an investigation triggered a letter from the district attorney that was rare in it's tone. Feccia's letter essentially put the employees on notice.
"If you desire justice to be done as you claim in press reports," Feccia wrote on April 21, "you should provide the identity and contact information of these witnesses."
Berardino wrote back to Feccia telling him that nearly a half dozen people had already been forwarded to his investigators the week earlier.
That resulted in an apology to Berardino and a second letter from Feccia directly to employees telling them that if they spoke to investigators, they would have guaranteed confidentiality and whistleblower protection against any retaliation.
Since, there is a more conciliatory tone between the two camps.
"We're developing our inquiry further," Feccia said Friday. "We're continuing to acquire information. And there's a lot."
-- NORBERTO SANTANA, JR.