Spitzer Moves to Block Ascent of COO Under Investigation

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County Chief Operating Officer Mark Denny might not get appointed as acting CEO next month when County CEO Mike Giancola goes out on medical leave.

At least not while a legal investigation into his actions as former head OC Parks remains pending.

Denny is under review for more than $900,000 in questionable consulting contracts with BPM Advisors in the county parks department while he was director.

“If you have a pending investigation, you shouldn’t be promoted,” said County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who is pushing back on the plan to promote Denny.

That drew immediate support from Orange County Employees Association General Manager Nick Berardino, who stressed, “I’m in 100 percent agreement with Supervisor Spitzer. Every county employee must be treated fairly and equally. There can be no exceptions.”

Giancola is planning on taking a medical leave on Jan. 21, just a week ahead of the culmination of a hotly contested election for the supervisor’s seat vacated by Janet Nguyen after she won the 34th District state Senate race.

That left his number-two man, Denny, in an awkward position.

Denny rose through the county professional and political ranks both as a chief of staff and department head. However, early in his career, Denny’s work as a political operative left him with a scar that makes it tough for him to go near elections.

In 1996, Denny – who was 27 at the time – was ensnared in a Republican Party plan to manipulate the ballot in a contested 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.

Then an aide to then-Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, Denny 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 OC Parks in 2008 and stayed until being tapped as COO.

Giancola has staunchly backed Denny, even moving the Registrar of Voters out from under his supervisor when union leaders raised objections. This next month, Giancola was prepared to place Denny as acting CEO until Voice of OC wrote about the issue.

When questions first arose, Giancola opted to move the Registrar of Voters to the County Counsel and insisted that having Denny as acting CEO posed no issues.

Giancola seemingly had the support of two longstanding county supervisors – Chairman Shawn Nelson and John Moorlach.

Then on Monday, County Supervisor Todd Spitzer came out strongly in opposition, saying that Giancola had assured him that if the pending legal investigation is not concluded by Jan. 21, current Chief Financial Officer Frank Kim will take over as acting CEO.

“I don’t’ feel it’s appropriate for Mark to be the acting CEO,” Spitzer said. “I have assurances from Giancola. He’s doing everything he can to get that resolved by the 21st,” he said.

“If it’s not resolved by the 21st, then Frank Kim will be CEO,” Spitzer said.

“It’s an inappropriate cloud hanging over his head. And I don’t want to deal with with it. It shouldn’t be a board issue.”

If Denny does not move into the acting CEO position on Jan. 21, it remains unclear whether the Registrar of Voters would still plan to move under the supervision of County Counsel Nick Chrisos.

Spitzer noted that if Denny were to be appointed acting CEO during the conclusion of the audit, the board would have to be intimately involved in reading the audit, the investigation and decide disciplinary measures themselves.

That is a position that board members steadfastly avoided in the Carlos Bustamante scandal in 2012, where the former OC Public Works executive was charged with a dozen felony sex crimes just after county supervisors handed him a quiet resignation after being informed of the conclusions of a critical legal review.

County supervisors fought Voice of OC for years in court to avoid release of any documents related the legal reviews of Bustamante’s actions, eventually losing a court battle that required them to pay more than $120,000 for Voice of OC legal fees.