CEO Tom Mauk's future atop Orange County government looks to be in Supervisor Pat Bates' hands as the Board of Supervisors heads into a special closed session today at 3 p.m. to discuss Mauk's handling of an internal county investigation into the actions of Carlos Bustamante toward women who worked for him at Orange County Public Works.
On Tuesday, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas charged Bustamante, a 47-year-old Santa Ana City Councilman and former Public Works executive, with 12 felonies in relation to an eight-year period during which Bustamante allegedly sexually terrorized at least seven women who worked for him.
Mauk and other senior executives have been harshly criticized since it was revealed that although complaints about Bustamante surfaced as early as March 2011, he was allowed to remain in his job until he resigned last October.
Now in light of the charges brought this week by Rackauckas, two supervisors — Chairman John Moorlach and Shawn Nelson — said that Mauk’s handling of the situation was so flawed that he should resign.
Supervisor Bill Campbell, on the other hand, argued that Mauk did his job correctly. Campbell's view is that Mauk got an abuser out of the office and solved the problem without triggering large liability for taxpayers.
The board’s two female members — Bates and Janet Nguyen — haven’t returned calls on the issue. Nguyen is reportedly very close to Mauk and supports him, according to multiple sources.
That leaves Bates as the swing vote.
According to sources close the matter, an employee complaint was filed against Bustamante in March 2011. That issue was investigated and Bustamante cleared by a human resources official who actually worked under him. Then in August, The Orange County Register published anonymous letters that detailed Bustamante's actions.
Mauk responded by commissioning an investigation by an outside law firm, which found issues of stalking and other harassment that had criminal implications. After the report was filed, Mauk confronted Bustamante and negotiated a quiet resignation with three months' severance pay and a guarantee that Bustamante wouldn’t sue the county for wrongful termination.
Campbell contended that the law firm’s report on the matter wasn’t clear regarding the criminal extent of Bustamante’s actions and that Mauk protected the county well.
Yet Moorlach and Nelson argued that Mauk's approach left out a key accountability component by allowing an abuser to leave quietly.
Few officials other than Mauk ever saw the report.
When the county’s Internal Audit Director Peter Hughes sought access to the report, he was apparently stonewalled by former Human Relations Director Carl Crown. Questions are mounting about why Crown didn’t give Hughes access to the report.
What is clear is that once Hughes finished his report in March, supervisors referred the matter to Rackauckas.
Regardless of opinions on Mauk’s handling of the issue, removing him will likely be complicated and expensive. Mauk has a severance package in his contract that includes up to a $300,000 payout if he’s terminated, with or without cause.
County Counsel Nick Chrisos has delivered an opinion to supervisors regarding Mauk’s withholding of the law firm report as a potential factor that could help supervisors avoid a payout if they fire Mauk, but it’s unclear how definitive Chrisos’ opinion is.
Sources close to the situation indicate that Mauk, who has been CEO since 2004, may be beginning a transition toward retirement. It’s not clear whether he has the votes to stay in control to manage that transition.
“I would prefer he just resign,” said Moorlach Thursday just after the closed session was placed on the board's agenda.
Without elaborating, Moorlach said he believes Mauk mishandled the situation. He, like Nelson, is questioning why supervisors were never given access to the law firm's report and why the internal auditor was stonewalled.
“I think we have to get some resolution here,” Moorlach said. “There were errors in judgment, and we have to make a call. Where they grievous enough to remove a CEO or not?” Moorlach said Thursday in his office.
“I think John felt betrayed,” Nelson said in a Thursday interview.
“I know that Peter Hughes was jerked around,” Nelson said. “Peter Hughes was trying to get answers, and they were hidden from him on purpose.”
“And this wasn’t going to be turned over to the DA. That’s indisputable,” Nelson said, adding that top officials inside Public Works weren’t even disciplined until after Hughes audit report came to light.
Given how things turned out, Nelson said, Mauk should not remain as the county’s leader.
Campbell meanwhile says Moorlach and Nelson are moving too fast. He believes calling a closed session so quickly after this week’s events is irresponsible.
“The hastiness of this does call into question John’s leadership,” Campbell said.
In addition to the deliberations over Mauk, there are also indications about who might be Interim CEO if Mauk moves on.
Top candidates include: current Human Resouces Director Steve Danley, Airport Director Alan Murphy, Community Resources Department Director Steve Franks and OC Waste & Recycling Director Mike Giancola.