Supervisors Officially Reject Grand Jury Report and Ethics Panel

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The Orange County Board Supervisors Tuesday formally responded to a grand jury report that alleged a “culture of corruption” in county government, calling the report “selective, one-sided and clearly tailored to reach a predetermined conclusion.”

In their official written response, supervisors — voting 3-0 vote with Supervisor Todd Spitzer abstaining and Vice Chairwoman Pat Bates absent — also rejected the grand jury's recommendation that they establish an ethics commission that would lay the groundwork for countywide ethics reform and the establishment of an “oversight authority.”

The grand jury’s finding in May that Orange County lacks effective ethics oversight of its public officials was “irresponsibly broad, vague, and not substantiated in the report," the supervisors asserted in their response.

They argued that the existing system of checks and balances works and that spending the money and staff time creating a commission would be “wasteful.”

They did, however, create an ad hoc committee to research whether to contract with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission to provide ethics training and enforce local campaign contribution limits. It came on the suggestion of board Chairman Shawn Nelson.

The move came amid a period of extraordinary tension between supervisors and the grand jury. Supervisors last week called the panel’s work “shoddy” and “shameful” and threatened to slash grand jurors’ pay by 70 percent.

The supervisors are especially upset about the report officially titled "A Call for Ethical Standards: Corruption in Orange County" and another detailing problems at CalOptima, titled "CalOptima Burns While Majority of Supervisors Fiddle.”

“You’re here to help us, not to embarrass us nationally,” Supervisor John Moorlach told grand jurors.

“It’s a complete disservice to me, to the public, to people that rely on this,” said Nelson. “It was just chasing ghosts. I mean, it’s very frustrating, and really it’s shameful.”

The corruption report lays out a 40-year chronology of corruption and crime in Orange County.

“From 1974-77, an eye-popping 43 Orange County political figures were indicted, among them, two congressmen, three supervisors and the county assessor. Sadly the conduct continues today at all levels of Orange County government,” the jury wrote.

It also seemed to foresee the supervisors’ opposition to an ethics commission.

“In a healthy ethics environment, leaders are not afraid of an independent ethics program, because they understand that the best measure is to do everything possible to prevent officials and employees from creating an appearance of impropriety,” the report declares.

San Bernardino County recently contracted with the FPPC to enforce its local campaign contribution limits law.

Under that agreement, the FPPC audits the campaign committees of officials elected countywide, trains candidates on legal requirements and prosecutes violations.

Spitzer wrote a separate reaction to the grand jury’s findings.

In his response, Spitzer agreed that the county “lacks effective ethics oversight of public officials.” He said Orange County should have an independent commission, appointed by a panel of retired judges,  to examine ethics bodies across the nation.

“It is essential to give the Blue Ribbon Commission a mandate to construct a proposal that enables an independent Orange County Ethics Commission to provide oversight, enforce ethics ordinances, and provide advice and training,” Spitzer wrote.

On Tuesday, Spitzer backed away from advocating an independent commission, saying he supports Nelson's plan to explore the FPPC model.

“People need to know that this is not to get people prosecuted, put in jail or fined. This shouldn’t be about gotcha,” said Spitzer. “This should be about setting a standard.”

Spitzer has said that District Attorney Tony Rackauckas helps foster a “tone of tolerance” in Orange County by not having an effective approach to pursuing wrongdoing by politicians.

Spitzer, once a protegé of Rackauckas, is now the DA's bitter foe and will likely challenge him in the 2014 election.

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that Supervisor Todd Spitzer voted with his board colleagues on their official response to the grand jury report. He abstained from that vote. We regret the error. The article has also been updated to clarify Spitzer's support for studying the FPPC model.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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