Questions Surround Assessor Nomination Signatures

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Nearly all of the people who formally nominated Webster Guillory for Orange County Assessor this year also happen to work for him.

And records show they signed his nomination papers during work hours.

Laws at both the state and federal levels, as well as case law, have all established the general principle that the resources provided by taxpayers should not be used to support candidates for election or a position on a ballot measure.

The questions in Guillory’s case — which are in the hands of District Attorney’s Office investigators — include whether signing nomination papers constitutes a violation of those laws; and whether the county workers were on county property when they signed the papers. 

California Penal Code Section 424 has been on the books since 1872 and is often invoked against officials who used public funds for political campaigns. The federal Hatch Act was enacted following allegations that employees of the Works Progress Administration were involved in the congressional elections of 1938.

And case law, specifically People vs. (former Orange County Supervisor Robert) Battin dates back to the 1970s and addressed county supervisors’ staff and equipment being used in campaigns.

“It is a misdemeanor to proselytize during working hours and of course an employer has undue influence over employees in this kind of circumstance,” said Julie H. Biggs, a respected municipal law specialist who serves on the board of directors of CalAware, a statewide open records and whistleblower advocacy group that advises Voice of OC on legal issues.

According to an Oct. 25, 2011 memo by Orange County’s County Counsel office on political activities of public workers, “non-elected county officials and employees may not give speeches, may not make public appearances, and may not do staff work in support of or opposition to ballot measures or candidates for elected office during their normal county work hours, unless the time they spend on such activities is charged to personal leave time.”

Payroll records reviewed by Voice of OC show that nearly all of the public workers at the Assessor’s office who signed Guillory’s nomination papers on the afternoon of Friday, March 7 didn’t take any personal time off.

However, the County Counsel memo does not specifically mention the collection of signatures, and it is not clear how county resources were used in the collection of the signatures, according to election attorneys quoted by The Orange County Register.

Guillory, who had been rumored to be mulling retirement this year after several terms as county assessor, left his political opponents guessing until the March 7 filing deadline, picking up his filing papers that Friday afternoon, according to several sources.

He returned his petitions to the Registrar of Voters later that same day, stipulating with his signature that he himself had witnessed circulation of the nomination papers. According to filing documents, his second-in-command, Shaw Lin, also stipulated that he also circulated nomination papers for his boss.

Guillory did not return a call from Voice of OC seeking comment.

However, he told The Register on Wednesday that the employees’ signatures were gathered outside the assessor’s civic center offices that day while on employee breaks, adding “we are very careful about these things.”

It’s unclear how nearly two-dozen employees communicated about supporting their boss for re-election that Friday and coordinated their breaks so they could nomination papers for Guillory.

It is likely that DA investigators will be interviewing those employees and checking to see just how careful Guillory and his senior staff were that day.

DA officials are not commenting, but have confirmed that a complaint was filed by Jorge Lopez, a former Assessor’s Office employee who is running against Guillory in the June primary election. Lopez also filed a complaint with the county grand jury this month.

Lopez and Larry Bales, another former assessor employee, said workers inside the office had communicated to them that Webster showed up to the office that Friday and had executive managers walk around to workers’ cubicles on a lower floor to gather the signatures.

“Webster always prides himself as following the rules and law,” Lopez said. “Yet here he is violating every code and department policy on the subject, perjuring himself and pressuring people.”

Lopez said assessor employees asked by a boss to sign election nomination documents are in an impossible situation.

“They don’t have an option,” Lopez said. “What happens to them if they don’t sign.”

However, Biggs said workers do have clear rights to refuse any kind of campaign-related request from their superiors.

“The Labor Code prohibits retaliation against any employee for his or her political positions and sets up whistleblowing protections for reporting violations,” Biggs said.

“Candidates, especially incumbents should know the rules of political activity on the premises, it is 100 percent their responsibility to know the rules and act accordingly,” said CalAware Board Member Kathleen Moran, who also serves as County Clerk Recorder for Colusa County.

Prosecutors often call it a Battin situation. Battin was first elected as supervisor in 1968 and later reelected in 1972.

When the Democrat put together a campaign for Lt. Governor in 1974, his use of his county supervisorial staff for campaigning netted him a guilty verdict on misuse of public funds. While Battin argued he was the victim of a politicized prosecution by former District Attorney Cecil Hicks, a Republican, he was unsuccessful throughout his court appeals.

The case is often cited as a standard.

Appellate justices who ultimately denied his appeal concluded, “our review reveals a deliberate and planned scheme by which defendant utilized, for campaign purposes, any spare moment of his staff’s county time. We also note an extensive use of county office equipment, as well as use of defendant’s position, as a county official, to obtain advantageous information that may not have been so readily available to his opponent.”

Moran said when asked, workers should just say no.

“Employees should also know the rules but often seem to be put in the difficult position of being solicited during work hours at their place of work,” she said.

“To answer the question what do you do when… my answer is: “I don’t sign anyone’s petitions while at work because we are not allowed to do so.”

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