Supervisor Nguyen’s Fundraising Attracts Scrutiny of the FBI

Nguyen on grand jury report

Orange County Supervisor Janet Nguyen. (Photo by: Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

A contractor who has done work for the county of Orange this week confirmed that FBI officials contacted him late last year with questions about county Supervisor Janet Nguyen.

Additionally, another source told Voice of OC that FBI agents had a "wide-ranging" discussion with the source about Nguyen's fundraising activities, specifically in regards to county contracts.

That FBI agents have been asking about Nguyen’s fundraising has for months been the worst-kept secret in the county Hall of Administration.

Yet, while other county supervisors privately confirmed hearing the rumors, Nguyen said Tuesday that she hasn't been contacted by FBI agents, nor has she heard of an inquiry by the agency into her activities.

“I haven’t been contacted by anybody,” said the second-term supervisor, who is preparing a run in 2014 for the state's 34th Senate District seat in central Orange County.

And though she acknowledges being an aggressive fundraiser, Nguyen steadfastly denies any improprieties. “As part of my job, I fundraise,” she said. “I stay within the law.”

Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman based in Los Angeles, said the agency doesn’t “confirm or deny investigations.”

Nguyen has been scrutinized heavily in recent months in the wake of a January county grand jury report that took issue with her efforts to take control of CalOptima, the county's multibillion-dollar health plan for poor and elderly residents. The grand jury was especially critical of her fundraising activities among healthcare lobbyists while she worked to craft an ordinance that heightened the role of hospitals on the CalOptima board.

On Monday, David Dudley, president of El Cajon-based West Coast Air Conditioning, confirmed that FBI agents visited him “three to four months ago” and asked questions about a phone call he received “about a year and a half ago” from Nguyen’s office.

“We got a call from one of her assistants that she may want to talk to me about a project that we were going to do,” Dudley said.

He added, “there was never a follow-up call."

Dudley, who said he rarely donates to political campaigns, has had several contracts with the county. They include a $25-million project in 2009 for John Wayne Airport’s new power and heating plant and two public works contracts in 2012 worth nearly $2 million for water pumps and electrical infrastructure.

Dudley said he didn’t think much of the contact from Nguyen's office other than “it surprised me when I got the call. It did seem a little abnormal.”

“The idea of a supervisor, board member, wanting to talk to a contractor or vendor directly is abnormal from everything I’ve ever been around,” said Dudley, noting he’s been in the family business for 35 years.

“There may not have been anything wrong with it,” he said. “They didn’t ask anything, just said the supervisor would want to talk to me about the project before the vote.”

Dudley did say he might have mentioned the phone call to county staff because it was odd but he never followed it up and never heard anything until a few months ago.

“I have been questioned by the FBI on it,” Dudley said, adding that an agent visited with him briefly several months ago and asked about the phone call.

The FBI has not contacted Dudley since that visit, he said.

Another individual who does business with county agencies but declined to be identified by name because of fear of reprisals also confirmed contact from FBI agents regarding Nguyen.

Like Dudley, the source acknowledged contact by the FBI late last year. But unlike Dudley, the source described a wide-ranging discussion, saying that agents wanted to learn specifically about Nguyen when they requested the meeting.

Agents didn’t indicate whether they had a specific issue, but the interview covered county contracts, campaign contributions and a full range of government issues, the source said.

Nguyen does acknowledge contacting some county vendors directly when she was the supervisors’ chairwoman in 2010 but said it was to help streamline how the county’s procurement process works.

She said one of her central goals as chairwoman was to help county vendors and nonprofits work as better partners to improve the county procurement process and how agendas for the supervisors’ public meetings are prepared.

“When I was chair we called around to see how people were doing with the county,” she said Tuesday during a phone interview.

And while she did acknowledge reaching out directly to vendors, Nguyen said, “It was a few phone calls. It was really quick, five-minute calls.”

Nguyen also noted that other county supervisors also raise funds from vendors. Given that she is a “working class” candidate and not independently wealthy like some of her colleagues, fundraising is key to her political future, Nguyen said.

“I’ve always been outspent,” Nguyen said, noting that she expects the state Democratic Party to aggressively raise funds to keep the 34th State Senate District in Democratic hands, along with the state’s supermajority.

The only way to compete, she said, is to raise funds.

“I’m going to do my best to make sure I have resources to make sure I’m on a level playing field,” Nguyen said.

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