Voice of OC’s Top Stories of 2013

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As Voice of OC entered its third year, the news agency and its reporters continued to have an impact on public policy throughout our region. Here’s some of the major issues where Voice of OC coverage made a difference.

FBI Takes Aim at Corruption

The region’s political establishment was rocked in July, when Voice of OC revealed that the FBI was leading a public corruption task force in Orange County.

It was formally created in April, the same month that the county grand jury called for an ethics commission and a state investigation was launched into county leaders over their handling of CalOptima, the county’s managed health care plan for the poor and elderly.

Most of the investigations follow much of Voice of OC’s reporting on corruption issues throughout the county.

County supervisors weren’t happy about the task force, saying it’s unfairly paints the county as having a corrupt culture.

They’ve also publicly scolded grand jurors about their report and denied their funding request.

The feds aren’t saying who they’re investigating. But multiple sources have confirmed that agents are asking about county contracts and Supervisor Janet Nguyen’s expanding role at CalOptima.

Grand Jury Issues Scathing Report on CalOptima

The panel blasted Nguyen’s leadership of the health plan, which serves a third of Orange County’s children.

“Political turmoil threatens the organization, jeopardizing its membership’s access to quality healthcare and potentially putting the entire entity at risk,” concluded the report, whose details largely echoed years of reporting by Voice of OC’s Tracy Wood.

The report also raised questions about Nguyen allowing CalOptima’s board to be reshaped by hospital lobbyists, who then threw her a campaign fundraiser.

Nguyen fired back, declaring that the lobbyists didn’t play any role in major changes at the agency.

A couple months later, the state’s political watchdog to open an investigation into county supervisors and CalOptima.

And in August, Voice of OC revealed that Nguyen may have violated state law when she voted for an outside attorney’s CalOptima contract soon after receiving campaign money from him.

Mayor Pulido’s Property Swap

The Santa Ana mayor made waves in November when a Voice of OC investigation found that he had profited by $200,000 from a property swap with a city contractor.

That prompted a city investigation into the matter, which could ultimately be referred to law enforcement.

It was a rough political year for Pulido, who also saw his two top managers fired by the new council majority.

In many ways, it’s a continuation of the “Santa Ana Spring” movement that sought to end Pulido’s political dominance.

And now, some members of the new majority are fighting corruption allegations of their own.

Councilwoman Michele Martinez was accused of taking illegal gifts from an apartment developer. She adamantly denied it and invited the FBI to fully investigate Santa Ana politics.

Angel Stadium Negotiations

It’s the most popular sports venue in the county. And it’s now at the center of a heated debate over lease terms between the city of Anaheim and team owner Arte Moreno.

It all started when the council majority gave Moreno an extra three years to decide whether to relocate, which critics say gives him more time to establish a credible threat of moving the team.

Then, activists criticized a proposal to lease 155 acres of city land for $1 a year, calling it a potential giveaway that will affect residents for generations to come.

The council majority, meanwhile, says they’re negotiating in good faith on behalf of the city’s best interests.

The Columbia Journalism Review credited Voice of OC’s enterprising coverage on the stadium negotiations while taking aim at the region’s major daily newspapers — The Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times — for the lack of vigilance on the issue.

Corruption Allegations at the County

The county grand jury wasn’t the only group raising concerns about the county government this year.

In March, we learned that Anaheim Councilman Jordan Brandman was paid $24,000 by the county to write a draft report with an entire section largely copied from Wikipedia.

Then in June, a former aide to county supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson alleged that he was fired for investigating misuse of public funds.

In July, the county’s former equal employment opportunity official filed a lawsuit claiming workers operate in a toxic environment of sexual harassment and discrimination, fueled by a decades-long practice of pushing political aides into the county’s bureaucracy.

And in August, a former county Human Resources manager publicly claimed that top officials retaliated against her because she refused to skirt selection rules for county jobs and insisted that harassment complaints be investigated.

Court Battle Over Bustamante Records

Voice of OC continued to pursue a public records lawsuit seeking records about how county officials handled allegations of sexual abuse by former executive Carlos Bustamante, who was later charged with a dozen felony sex crimes.

The LA Times, OC Register and California Newspaper Publishers Association also gave their support to the records suit.

The state Supreme Court ultimately chose not to hear the case.

The case was making its way through the courts as the county grand jury raised concerns about how county managers handled the allegations:

“…each Grand Jury Panel Member was appalled at the alleged behavior and alarmed by the ineptitude of County managers who investigated complaints of sexual misconduct,” their report states.

And former county executive Jess Carbajal filed a lawsuit claiming that county supervisors fired him to protect themselves from disclosures about their own mismanagement of the Bustamante allegations.

County supervisors, meanwhile, have denied bungling the investigation.

Ambulance Firms Under Fire

As county officials pushed for greater use of private paramedics, Voice of OC found they turned to ambulance firms with years of labor violations and financial difficulties. In November, Lynch Ambulance of Anaheim, which was chosen by the county for a pilot program, agreed in November to pay $3 million to settle $30 million in federal fraud allegations.

Immigrant Health Paradox

In October, Voice of OC published a groundbreaking series on what is known as the immigrant health paradox. Even though they most often come from areas of high poverty, first-generation immigrants to the United States are healthier on a variety of levels than the average American. However, by the next generation as families acquire U.S. eating habits, the health advantages fade.

Voice of OC’s series explored the issue in both the Latino community, where the paradox is most prominent, and in the Asian community.

Nepotism Concerns in Garden Grove

Working for the city of Garden Grove, it turns out, is a family affair.

At least eight current and former city employees are close relatives of high-ranking city officials, Voice of OC revealed in August.

And Mayor Bruce Broadwater’s son was offered a firefighter job, despite reportedly failing a crucial interview with battalion chiefs.

Chamber of Commerce Blogger Sparks Outrage With Mocking Post

Matt Cunningham, a Republican insider government affairs consultant with close ties to Anaheim’s City Council majority and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, sparked outrage among Latino leaders by penning a satirical post on his blog poking fun at the roadside memorials this past year to residents killed in officer-involved shootings.

Voice of OC led the coverage on the issue, as well as delving into the contracts that Cunningham has held with public agencies, such as the Orange County Transportation Authority.

OC Register’s Dealings With City Leaders

The Orange County Register raised eyebrows in national media circles when it emerged that the paper’s parent company was ready to become Anaheim’s naming right’s broker on a controversial transit project.

News of the deal drew warnings that the county’s largest newspaper could be seen as an “agent of the government.”

And the Columbia Journalism Review criticized the arrangement, pointing to the city government as “the main entity the Register is supposed to cover.”

The proposal later fell apart.

PBS SoCaL’s OC News Show Signs Off

Orange County’s last broadcast news program aired its final show this month after 16 years on the air.

All year long, Voice of OC presented a weekly segment on the show and teamed up for an investigation into money and politics surrounding a proposed trucking center in Cypress.

With the end of “Real Orange,” Orange County will have no broadcast TV shows devoted to covering its public affairs other than student broadcasts and programs run by government agencies and cable companies.

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