COO Oversight of County Elections Office Quietly Withdrawn

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Orange County CEO Mike Giancola has moved responsibility for the county’s elections office out from under Chief Operating Officer Mark Denny after concerns raised last month by a labor leader about Denny’s 1996 conviction for voter fraud.

The quiet transfer of OC Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley to Giancola’s command followed a formal complaint to county supervisors regarding Denny’s conviction from Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

This is not the first time such a move has taken place. Under former CEO Tom Mauk, Kelley’s office was made to report directly to the CEO when Deputy CEO Dave Rudat got into trouble in 2007 and was eventually let go.

County spokeswoman Jean Pasco said that Giancola’s move had nothing to do with the formal protests about Denny’s oversight of elections and was instead just part of an ongoing reorganization.

Denny declined comment.

Berardino argued that placing Denny over the registrar of voters creates a perceptual issue regarding the sanctity of the voting process.

Indeed, it’s unlikely anyone with such a misdemeanor conviction could pass the criminal background check required to work inside an election registrar’s office.

The complaint filed by Berardino coincided with the launch of an OCEA campaign to ratchet up pressure on supervisors in the midst of stalemated contract negotiations. Last month, county officials delivered a last, best and final offer to the union that included no raises and punitive measures if the offer was rejected, which it was by a 99-percent margin.

Giancola had previously issued a statement standing by Denny’s appointment.

“I have full confidence in my Chief Operating Officer. I knew about his background when I hired him eight months ago and he’s doing a great job for the County,” Giancola wrote.

Denny’s troubles began in 1996 when he was a staff aide to Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle and pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge after a Republican scheme to manipulate the ballot was exposed.

The scheme involved circulating nominating petitions for a decoy Democratic candidate, Laurie Campbell, who then fraudulently claimed on election forms that she circulated the petitions on her own.

Along with Denny, two other GOP campaign workers eventually pleaded guilty to election fraud and named Rhonda Carmony, then a top aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, as instrumental in the plan, according to their sworn declarations to the court. Carmony later married Rohrabacher.

Another campaign aide, who worked for then Assemblyman Scott Baugh, R-Huntington Beach, also pleaded guilty to participating in a plan to put Campbell on the ballot to siphon votes from a more established Democratic candidate in the Assembly race.

Baugh would later go on to become chairman of the Orange County Republican Party and is now rumored to be considering a run for state Senate.

Denny later resurrected his political career, becoming a well-regarded chief of staff to former Supervisor Bill Campbell. After a short stint in the private sector after Campbell’s first term in office, Denny returned to the county as the parks director before being named CAO last year.

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