An Orange County Superior Court judge has ordered the county to make public more than two dozen sets of documents that shed some light on how officials handled allegations that former Public Works executive Carlos Bustamante sexually assaulted women who worked for him.
The order by Judge David T. McEachen is the culmination of a two-year open records case brought against the county by Voice of OC and open-government advocate Californians Aware.
“We are pleased that we have finally prevailed on this long and hard-fought battle,” said Voice of OC and Californians Aware attorney Kelly Aviles, “but disappointed that it takes so much work to get documents the public was legally entitled to in the first place.”
Among the documents county officials now must make public is all of a reportedly politically explosive letter that former Orange County Deputy CEO Alisa Drakodaidis leveled at District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and several members of the Board of Supervisors, especially Supervisor Pat Bates, in connection with the Bustamante case.
Bates and others have denied any validity to the allegations leveled by Drakodaidis in her claim letter against the county.
Yet in his Dec. 31 decision, McEachen repeatedly wrote “the public's interest in disclosure outweighs any interest that could justify secrecy” as he ordered the release of one document after another.
Of the Drakodaidis letter, the judge wrote “… the County must produce the unredacted letter in its entirety.”
“The only reason they [county supervisors] didn’t want the Drakodaidis letter released is because it included a lot of embarrassing allegations,” said Voice of OC Editor-in-Chief Norberto Santana Jr.
Santana praised McEachen for his decision to release all records that aren’t covered by a separate gag order obtained last fall by the county. The newly-opened records should be public within a week or so, and county taxpayers will pay the legal bills.
County supervisors, said Santana, “frittered away public tax money to protect their political interests” but “we finally have a judge who understands.”
The amount the county will have to pay hasn’t been specified yet.
Santana praised Aviles and Californians Aware, calling them “the best public-interest lawyers out there.”
Before he was arrested on 12 felony and four misdemeanor sexual harassment charges in July 2012, Bustamante was a rising star in Republican political circles and county executive ranks as a member of the Santa Ana City Council.
County officials have said they had an outside law firm investigate Drakodaidis’ allegations before she was officially fired in April and determined her charges had no merit. The law firm's report has never been made public and is subject to a separate protective order sought by county officials in response to the Voice of OC and Californians Aware lawsuit.
In court, the county has continued to fight release of the letter along with a multitude of other documents sought by Voice of OC and Californians Aware to publicly determine what top county leaders knew about Bustamante’s alleged sexual harassment and when they knew it.
The Bustamante criminal case still is pending, and no hearings are scheduled, according to court records.
When Voice of OC filed requests under the California Public Records Act to review documents that would shed light on how members of the Board of Supervisors and top county administrators handled allegations against Bustamente, the county fought to deny access to every record.
After a year, just when the civil public records case was ready to go to trial, the county and Rackauckas turned to the criminal courts and obtained a gag order against themselves, barring them from releasing most of their documents. Rackauckas already had a protective order in the criminal case keeping confidential records his office said were needed to prosecute Bustamante.
The highly unusual gag order obtained by the county and Rackauckas was challenged by Voice of OC and Californians Aware, with support from the Los Angeles Times; Freedom Communications, parent of The Orange County Register; the 800-member California Newspaper Publishers Association; and Virginia–based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
But the state Supreme Court said it refused to review lower court decisions.
Open-government advocates worry that the county’s efforts to use the criminal courts to keep records from becoming public will become a statewide fad among local agencies trying to block the public from knowing what they are doing and how they are doing it.
In the wake of Bustamante’s arrest, several top county managers who may have either known about the allegations or reportedly failed to act promptly included Drakodaidis, Public Works Director Jess Carbajal and CEO Tom Mauk. While Mauk resigned, both Drakodaidis and Carbajal were fired and have since filed suit against the county.
The documents to be released this month could shed light on what those executives did or didn’t do and some of what they might have known.
Carbajal, the first to go, has filed a wrongful termination suit against the county.
Mauk has said his departure had nothing to do with the Bustamante case. He received $270,000 in severance pay, “full indemnification and defense in any civil or administrative proceeding” and an agreement that the county would provide him with the legal counsel of his choice in any matter, up to an hourly rate of $300.
A few months after Mauk left, a county report determined the county Public Works Department was a dysfunctional organization plagued with meddling from county supervisors’ offices and Mauk on contracts for influential contractors as well as on property improvements for select constituents.
And the 2012 county grand jury, in one of a series of reports severely criticizing county government, said it found an “atmosphere of fear” that grand jurors said prevented female county workers from reporting sexual harassment.
Other county workers said former aides to county supervisors, who for decades have been given full-time management jobs when their supervisor retired or moved to another elected office, are a big cause of overall management problems within the county.
As part of its report on sexual harassment at the county, the grand jury did its own investigation of circumstances surrounding the Bustamante case and wrote: “Although details will not be nor can they be revealed in this study, suffice it to say that 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.”
Santana said even though the county has managed to block public access to the rest of the Bustamante records until the criminal trial is resolved, Voice of OC will stay on top of the issue and gather those records too as soon as they are available.
“We are not going away,” said Santana.