Keeping Watch: County Government’s Most Thankless Job

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Today, Orange County Supervisors are scheduled to have a very frank – and closed session – discussion with Performance Auditor Philip Cheng about his work.

So far, it’s been a yawner.

Since taking over as Performance Auditor, Cheng has turned over one milquetoast audit after another. His agency website is so plain that it doesn’t even list his name on the About Us page. All of the media coverage from the agency’s Media page ends in 2012.

One housing review he completed last fall made no mention of a year-long District Attorney’s Office investigation into the agency that turned over tons of information on waste and abuse. It’s a situation county supervisors found out about from the investigative reporting of Voice of OC reporter Yvette Cabrera just as they were scheduled to adopt a Cheng report that concluded the agency was smoothly meeting its marks. This past week, five workers at the agency were let go as a result of official reviews of their work performance.

All this being said, supervisors should have the frank talk with themselves.

Cheng’s milquetoast auditing is a direct result of the environment triggered by the last board majority – which penalized aggressive auditing and rewarded lapdog executives.

Despite their talk about running government like a business, these folks ran the shop with one goal: getting elected to the next higher office.

They were good at that.

We now have three State Senators – Pat Bates, Janet Nguyen and John Moorlach.

The results at the county? Not so good.

Just ask, like I did, to see the raw results of a recent employee survey of county workers. Top execs are still trying to figure out how to break the news to supervisors. They had to send supervisors an update after I sought the original records.

Know why they fear the results?

They’re miserable.

When county executives and workers were asked what they thought about the leader of Orange County, presumably the CEO, the results were a jaw-dropping 29 percent lower than the benchmark for other county governments.

Minus 29.

When asked whether the county of Orange operates with strong values and ethics, the answers from county staff were 20 percent lower than the benchmark for other county governments.

Minus 20.

This is the same CEO who county supervisors were praising last week after he abruptly announced his retirement.

Mike Giancola excelled at telling county supervisors exactly what they want to hear. He took care of their needs.

And they loved him for it.

And he did well.

Guess who didn’t do so well?

The last Performance Auditor, Steve Danley.

Danley – the only top exec to not get a raise in the past five years – was in line to be the next CEO, but couldn’t get the votes from supervisors in closed session because Bates and Nguyen were reportedly offended by the raw nature of his performance audits, which garnered top headlines for years.

His work delved into – and helped to limit – overtime pay for deputy sheriffs. He also did real investigations into the planning and human resources department, county harbor patrol and millions in no-bid IT contracts.

Raw audits expose real problems. They can hurt the brand. They force politicians to work, instead of campaign for higher office, to actually fix things.

Danley didn’t turn out too bad though, eventually getting the job of reorganizing the county Human Resources Department in the wake of the well-publicized Carlos Bustamante sex abuse scandal.

Unfortunately, Danley’s second-in-command, a well-regarded executive named Ian Rudge, never got a chance to follow his boss because he was stuck with termed-out Supervisor Moorlach when Danley left to head up HR. Moorlach refused to let Rudge return to Performance Audit because Rudge had given him a commitment to be his chief of staff.

Rudge eventually left Moorlach’s staff anyway for a job at the Probation Department.

Performance Audit was left to meander and was eventually given to Cheng, who seemingly has no idea of the political hornet’s nest he’s stepped into with a board of supervisors that is formally asking for investigations but doesn’t really want them.

Meanwhile, Danley’s new HR department ran straight into Brian Probolsky, a GOP power broker and elected official at the Moulton Niguel Water District. The trouble started when investigators started asking questions about why Probolsky didn’t take time off to head to water district meetings.

Investigators eventually got threatened with political retribution by Probolsky, but stood firm, issuing a three-day unpaid leave sanction to the political power broker – even listing his threats against them.

Yet after that, Probolsky got hired on as Chief of Staff to newly-elected Supervisor Andrew Do.

Since then, guess who has taken a really aggressive interest in the costs of Danley’s human resources consolidation?

Supervisor Andrew Do.

Orange County’s Internal Auditor Peter Hughes also has had a rocky few years since he uncovered a buried legal investigation into Bustamante, an elected member of the Santa Ana City Council and rising OC GOP Hispanic star who as a County Public Works executive was apparently habitually groping female workers at the office.

When a lawyer looked into the matter, county supervisors – including two women, Bates and Nguyen – signed off on a plan to have Bustamante quietly resign, take a 90-severance check and disappear.

After Hughes fought to have access to the same legal report as part of a hotline complaint, it ended up in an internal audit review that triggered a formal closed session and an automatic referral to District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. Bustamante’s trial is still ongoing.

After the Bustamante scandal, Hughes went looking at how then-Clerk Recorder Tom Daly managed an internal service fund inside his office called 12D. The account turned out to look much like a slush fund – the kind of fund that helps aspiring politicians like Anaheim City Councilman Jordan Brandman campaign for office while getting paid to be a “consultant” and produce reports largely lifted from Wikipedia.

Hughes produced a scathing audit that left Daly in fumes.

When Daly got to the state assembly, one of the first things he did was submit legislation to move Hughes away from the board of supervisors’ purview and back to the Auditor Controller.

That battle is still in play.

Who can blame Philipp Cheng for being milquetoast?

The last guy who pulled that off just got to play CEO for a few years.

Later this week, Supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer has convened a countywide conversation about ethics.

If supervisors want county ethics to get a better rating, than 20 points below their counterparts, they should come out publicly for strong auditing and they should promise their auditors that they wont be retaliated against for delivering bad news.

The brand can stand it.

  • Lyanna Lyns

    The dirty agency of the moment is SSA. Of course, you will never see anyone investigate them. Most people think that agency is a money spender, when, in truth, it is a money maker. What happened to Janet Nguyen’s CalOptima mystery account with well over a million dollars? Why is it that Spitzer is blatantly ignoring whistleblowers who come to him with evidence? Why is the District Attorney not looking into proven criminal activity? Better yet, why is Voice of the OC refusing to even speak with two people with evidence? I will tell you why. They are all hoping this will go away so they can get back to business as usual.

  • Steve W.

    Last week, Andrew Do asked for an audit of whether the centralizing of HR under Danley has improved performance. Norberto somehow forgot to mention that in his column.

    And what’s with the boosterism for Danley? Is it because he’s been such a good source of leaks for the Voice of OC? Why hasn’t the Voice ever reported it was Danley who hired the HR staffer who thought it was a good idea to investigate complaints against her superior, Carlos Bustamante, instead of bumping that up the chain of command? Why doesn’t the Voice report that after Danley was made head of HR, he hired a good friend who had just retired from the OC court system, and is now pulling down a sweet retirement and a full county salary, thanks to Danley?

    Why doesn’t the Voice of OC ever report on the crazy s–t rank-and-file county employees pull? Like the Animal Control officer who attacked a citizen, or the Public Works staffer who chased his field supervisor around with a machete? Or the Probation employees who were caught falsifying legal records to cover their slack work, but weren’t fired because OCEA went to bat for them. We hope it’s not because they’re all OCEA members.

    • David Zenger

      “Why hasn’t the Voice ever reported it was Danley who hired the HR
      staffer who thought it was a good idea to investigate complaints against her superior, Carlos Bustamante, instead of bumping that up the chain of command?”

      Maybe because it was Jess Carbajal, Director of OC Public Works, who ordered her to do it – four years after Danley left Public Works to become the Performance Auditor, I might add.

      Not even a good try. Weak effort.

    • David Zenger

      You: Last week, Andrew Do asked for an audit of whether the centralizing of HR under Danley has improved performance. Guess Norberto forgot to mention that in his column.

      Norberto’s Column: “Since then, guess who has taken a really aggressive interest in the costs of Danley’s human resources consolidation?

      Supervisor Andrew Do.”

      Seriously, dude, are you going to actually start reading these articles before popping off?

  • Rose72

    The governance at the county level lacks ethics at the very least. I do remember Supervisor Nelson stating he didn’t like campaign limits because it forces people to cheat. Kinda saids it all. That’s the biggest problem in today’s politicians, lying and cheating and hunger for power and money.

  • David Zenger

    “Later this week, Supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer has convened a countywide conversation about ethics.”

    I read the press release. Spitzer is to be accompanied by somebody from County Counsel. Now why on Earth would you need to bring your lawyer to a conference about ethics? The County ethics deficit has very little to do with what’s legal. And that’s the problem.

  • Paul Lucas

    Wow!!?? Hard Hitting Norberto. Good job.

  • David Zenger

    Slam dunk. Excellent editorial.

    Integrity is not rewarded at the upper levels of the County. It is hounded and persecuted. Real issues are ignored; governance was long ago abandoned for politics by “leaders” whose stock-in-trade is pure self interest all dressed up in a greasy sanctimony.

    A corporation of 20,000 people, and nobody is running the place.