Grand Jury Again Urges Creation of Ethics Commission

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The County Grand Jury, supporting the recommendation of last year’s grand jury, Tuesday called on the Board of Supervisors to help create a strong, independent county ethics “program” to police the conduct of county officials and lobbyists.

“Ethics bodies work effectively to deter, detect, and punish ethics violations,” said the 29-page detailed report. “Vigorous ethics monitoring and enforcement is necessary to develop and maintain trust in government.”

The grand jury urged supervisors to put the issue before the voters on the next available general election ballot to create an Orange County Campaign Reporting and Ethics Commission, “similar to commissions in other jurisdictions in California.”

The report said, “the Grand Jury concluded that an ethics body in Orange County would not be bureaucratic, unnecessary, irresponsible, or wasteful, as asserted by the Board of Supervisors” (last year).

Instead, the current 2013-2014 Grand Jury determined “ethics, campaign and lobbyist reporting oversight and enforcement in Orange County is deficient in a number of areas, including coordination, audits, transparency, law and policy advice and recommendations, and independence.”

It estimated the yearly cost of an ethics commission at about $500,000 or less than 0.01 percent of the county’s total annual budget. The report said the percentage is roughly the same as the far larger city of Los Angeles spends on its ethics commission.

“The potential cost of an ethics body is outweighed by its potential benefits, including coordinated oversight, transparency, independence, and creating atmosphere of deterrence to law violations and corruption that could contribute to improving overall trust in local government,” the grand jury wrote.

The Board of Supervisors must respond to the grand jury within 90 days, but the one-year term for this grand jury expires June 30, so it would be up to the incoming grand jury to decide if it wanted to continue following the ethics issue.

After studying ethics commissions in California at local governments that are larger or roughly similar in size to Orange County, the grand jury determined one key to success is making the overall ethics program as independent as possible from the government officials it scrutinizes.

“Clearly, it is a conflict for government officials whom the commission monitors to have ultimate control over the commission, including appointment and budget,” the grand jurors wrote.

“Clearly it is also a conflict for the DA’s office to have responsibility for investigating and prosecuting violations of campaign laws, when, in fact, the DA is an elected official who campaigns for office,” the report added. “Both of these are cases of the “fox guarding the henhouse.”

Grand Jury Tells Supervisors What Government Ethics Means

Last year, an angry Board of Supervisors not only rejected that grand jury’s call for a strong ethics oversight body, they later threatened to reduce the pay of grand jurors from $50 a day to $15 per day.

Instead of an independent ethics panel, the Supervisors voted for a weaker alternative, asking the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission or FPPC to contract with the county to oversee campaign finance laws.

Legislation authorizing such a move, sponsored by Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) has cleared the state Senate and is pending in the Assembly.

But the current grand jury determined the supervisors could control the FPPC more than an independent ethics panel because the FPPC would depend on the supervisors for its budget.

“Independence in monitoring and enforcing of ethics and reporting violations from those who are monitored is critical,” the grand jury found.

In addition, the FPPC only can handle civil matters, not criminal. And the local campaign finance law, known as TIN/CUP, is stricter than the state’s and would somehow have to be incorporated into FPPC oversight.

The grand jury recommended supervisors “carefully weigh the drawbacks to FPPC enforcement outlined in the (grand jury) Findings before pursuing it as an option to enforcing the County’s campaign finance ordinance.”

Besides, the grand jury reported, ethics go far beyond simply reporting campaign contributions.

Ethics, the report said, includes bans on using a government office for personal and financial gain, transparency, and requirements that government officials create a process that is fair and make decisions based on merit.

“Most importantly,” according to the grand jury, “it includes prohibitions of behavior that is unethical but may not be illegal, such as campaign contributions as quid-pro-quo for government favors and lucrative contracts.”

Orange County is one of the wealthiest areas in the state and, the grand jury said, the men and women who hold government positions are “subject to the same potential for corruption as anywhere else, yet monitoring and enforcement of ethics, and campaign and lobbyist reporting in the County is deficient in a number of areas, including oversight, law and policy advice and recommendations, audits, coordination, transparency, and independence.”

Among its other recommendations:

–If supervisors contract with the FPPC for enforcement of the County’s campaign finance ordinance, they should establish an Office of Ethics and Compliance charged with receiving complaints, monitoring, and investigating possible ethics law and policy violations, and offering training, advice and recommendations regarding such laws and policies. The Office should have a director nominated independently from County government officials; a budget mandated by law, with a floor on year-to-year reductions; paid staff, including its own inside or outside counsel, and power to subpoena records and individuals.

–At a minimum, to address current deficiencies in ethics and campaign and lobbyist oversight and reporting, the Board of Supervisors should institute charges and appropriate money for an existing county agency to perform comprehensive oversight of ethics compliance; for the Registrar of Voters and the Clerk of the Board to accomplish more comprehensive oversight of campaign and lobbyist reporting, including more complete audits, and for an existing county agency to create and manage a consolidated, compressive database of economic interest and campaign reporting data and information, available to the public via the Internet.

“Ethics monitoring and enforcement is important,” the grand jury wrote, “not just to punish violators, but to promote understanding of ethical guidelines and to remind public officials, employees, and candidates that their behavior is under close scrutiny.”

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

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