OC Registrar of Voters to Report to County Counsel

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Orange County’s Registrar of Voters is on the move again, required to engage in another round of executive musical chairs that began earlier this year when County Chief Operating Officer Mark Denny – who previously pled guilty to electoral fraud – took over the reigns of managing the day-to-day operations of the county’s $6 billion bureaucracy.

Next month, just as a special election gears up to replace outgoing Supervisor Janet Nguyen (who was elected to the State Senate), Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley will go from reporting directly to the County CEO to the County Counsel’s office.

Supervisors’ Chairman Shawn Nelson earlier this month set a Jan. 27 date for a hotly contested special election to elect a supervisor to finish out Nguyen’s term.

To date, five candidates are vying for the slot including State Senator Lou Correa, Nguyen’s former Chief of Staff Andrew Do, Garden Grove City Councilman Chris Phan, Chuyen Van Nguyen, a television news anchor for VNA-TV, and Lupe Morfin-Moreno, an office specialist for the county Health Care Agency.

County officials keep moving Kelley’s office around, all the while insisting publicly that there’s no problem in having someone who pled guilty to election fraud be supervising the office that performs elections.

“The Registrar of Voters has sole authority for conducting and administering elections in Orange County, pursuant to Government Code Section 26802,” replied County Spokeswoman Ruth Wardwell last Friday.

“We have no concerns that there will be problems,” Wardwell noted in an email statement, adding one last caveat.

“Further, the Registrar of Voters will report to County Counsel.”

Denny is taking over temporarily for County CEO Mike Giancola, who will go on medical leave in January for back surgery. Neither Giancola nor Denny responded to a request for comment.

When Denny took over as COO in February, union officials immediately raised alarm bells about having him directly in charge over the Registrar of Voters given his 1996 guilty plea for misdemeanor election fraud.

Although Denny is currently wrapped up in an ongoing legal review of nearly a million dollars in no-bid contracts when Denny headed up OC Parks, county supervisors all give him high marks as COO.

Union officials, like Orange County Employees Association General Manager Nick Berardino, have raised concerns on both Denny’s past as well as the current investigation into his past actions as head of OC Parks.

County Supervisor John Moorlach has staunchly defended Denny’s character despite the misdemeanor charge stemming from Denny’s role in a Republican Party plan to manipulate the ballot in a 1996 Assembly race. Denny was part of a scheme to circulate nominating petitions for a decoy Democratic candidate and submit fraudulent paperwork to the Registrar of Voters.

Denny, then a 27-year old aide to then-Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, resigned his post after pleading guilty to election fraud and was sentenced to three years’ probation, along with community service and a fine.

Although he was barred from campaigning for some time, he eventually came back into county service in 2004 and earned high marks as a chief of staff to then-County Supervisors’ Chairman Bill Campbell.

After a short stint in the private sector, Denny came back to head up the county parks department in 2008. In February, just after Giancola rose the CEO post, Denny was brought in to run day-to-day operations as COO.

County supervisors remain staunchly supportive of Denny and Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley.

“We’ve got the best Registrar’s of Voters in the state,” said Supervisors’ Chairman Shawn Nelson. “I’m not the least bit concerned.”

“(Mark) Denny’s has nothing to do with it,” Nelson said “The Registrar of Voters office begins and ends with Neal Kelley. Sure he responds to someone but they don’t’ tell him what the outcome of elections should be.”

“It’s doesn’t cause me concern either way. I don’t expect any issues,” Nelson said.

“He’s the COO,” Nelson said of Denny. “Mike has to have back surgery. He was Mike’s choice, not mine. That’s what happens when the Captain needs to be relieved. The second in command steps up.”

Moorlach agreed with Nelson, adding “I see Neal Kelly as very independent, a high level of integrity.”

While Moorlach said questions about Denny were legitimate, he concluded that, “I don’t think it has an impact whatsoever who is one or two layers above.”

Berardino said Denny’s treatment would set precedents, noting: “Mark should be treated like any other employee that is under investigation or who has been convicted of a crime related to his current position….not any better or more harsh.”

The Board’s action, whatever it may be, will be admissible in future arbitrations effecting our members.”