Grindle: Wording ‘Snuck’ Into Ethics Measure Legalizes Controversial Fundraising

Supervisor Shawn Nelson (left) and local watchdog Shirley Grindle. (Photos by Michelle Rubio for Voice of OC and Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

Supervisor Shawn Nelson (left) and local watchdog Shirley Grindle. (Photos by Michelle Rubio for Voice of OC and Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

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Longtime political watchdog Shirley Grindle cried tears of joy in October when Orange County supervisors validated decades of her work by approving an ethics commission measure for the June ballot.

“I can’t thank this board enough,” said Grindle, 81, who pushed for the measure to keep county campaign finance enforcement going when she’s unable to.

But she ran into a surprise a few weeks ago.

Grindle discovered that language had been inserted into the measure – without her knowledge, she says – that would legalize controversial fundraising by Supervisor Shawn Nelson that she and others say is barred under the county’s campaign finance law.

“They put it in without calling it to anyone’s attention,” said Grindle, who authored the original campaign finance law and got the supervisors to put the ethics commission measure on the ballot after threatening to run a voter initiative herself

The legalizing language was “snuck” in, she added.

The language Grindle is referring to would give Nelson the green light to keep fundraising into his supervisor account – despite being termed out – and then use that money to run for judge, a job he openly aspires to.

While he was re-elected in June 2014 without any debts left over, Nelson has since raised well over $47,000 into his supervisor account, which until recently was named Shawn Nelson for Supervisor 2018.

But the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission said it was illegal for Nelson to name the account for an election he’s not running for. So he changed the name back to 2014 last month.

But the fundraising itself is illegal under county campaign finance law, according to Grindle and a prominent elections law attorney, Fred Woocher.

That law, TINCUP, limits candidates to receiving $1,900 per donor during each election cycle. But because Nelson is no longer a candidate, he can’t fundraise into his supervisor’s account, according to Woocher and Grindle.

The law “appears to prohibit someone from collecting any campaign contributions after the close of the previous election cycle,” Woocher recently told Voice of OC.

After questions were raised about the fundraising, Nelson asked the office of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas – who enforces criminal violations of TINCUP – for an opinion. The DA’s office then issued a memo in December clearing Nelson, saying he can keep fundraising into his supervisor account.

But the memo makes no reference whatsoever to the TINCUP provision that requires people to be candidates in a given election cycle in order to raise money for a supervisor campaign account. It instead relies on a secret 2008 County Counsel opinion that is still under wraps.

The DA’s office has declined to comment on whether the candidacy requirement section was taken into account in its analysis.

Woocher, meanwhile, has described the DA’s memo as “about as bereft of actual legal analysis as anything I’ve ever seen.”

However, the new provision in the ethics commission proposal would clear up the controversy in Nelson’s favor. It adds wording to expand who is eligible to fundraise under TINCUP – to also include elected county officials, not just candidates.

Nelson played a major role in crafting the final language of the ethics commission proposal. But neither he nor county staff would answer questions regarding who requested this provision and why.

Nelson didn’t return messages seeking comment. And county spokeswoman Jean Pasco said the County Counsel’s office, which handled the item from staff’s side, “doesn’t respond to media inquiries.”

Grindle says the new wording amounts to an admission that Nelson’s fundraising isn’t currently legal. If it’s legal, “then why are they making the change?” she asked.

She is okay with changing the law to allow termed-out fundraising, but only if that money isn’t later used to run for a different office.

“It’s just misleading,” she said of Nelson’s apparent fundraising for judge using his supervisor campaign. “What I really want to do is make sure that they can’t collect funds in their last term of office…and then transfer all that money to run for another office, when at the same time they could be upfront about it and set up a different committee to run for [that] different office.”

She added: “We’ll let them collect $1,900 [per donor] again if they want. But they can only do it for retiring [campaign] debt or officeholder expenses.”

Grindle doesn’t want the supervisors to re-open the ballot measure, since that opens up the possibility of it being taken off the ballot altogether.

Instead, if the measure passes in June, she wants the supervisors to adopt a separate ordinance afterwards that would tighten the law to limit termed-out fundraising from being used for other campaigns.

This is allowed without going to the voters, she says, because TINCUP permits supervisors to strengthen it by adopting “additional requirements.”

Woocher says such a restriction would likely withstand constitutional scrutiny.

“I don’t see how you could argue that [people] have any kind of constitutional right to raise money for an office that they are legally prohibited from running for,” he said. “It’s a little bizarre that he hasn’t done what a lot of other people do, and say, ‘Hey, I’m raising money for a…[run for] judgeship,’ which doesn’t have any limits.”

Grindle agrees.

It “seems to me we’re not restricting him. We’re letting him set up a committee to raise campaign money, but not in his supervisors’ committee, because that’s false. He’s not running for re-election.”

As for Nelson, Grindle says he should set up a campaign committee for the real office he’s running for and collect his campaign contributions into that account.

“I’m waiting for Nelson to do the right thing,” Grindle said.

This isn’t the first time Nelson has helped craft a ballot measure that purports to tighten rules governing him, but in the end works out to his benefit.

After running on a tough-on-pensions platform in 2010, he signed up for one upon being elected. This ignited a firestorm of criticism from his conservative backers, which led him to turn the pension down

Then, in 2014, he co-authored a ballot measure that was touted as lowering the amount of money county supervisors receive in pensions.

But after the measure passed, it turned out that it actually forces Nelson to take a lucrative pension – which triggered a nearly $250,000 taxpayer payment into his retirement fund.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

  • Vern Pat Nelson

    Another shining T-Rack moment:

    “Woocher, meanwhile, has described the DA’s memo as ‘about as bereft of actual legal analysis as anything I’ve ever seen.’”

    • buzzookaman

      What he said

  • mutheta

    Any truth to the rumor that the folks at Rancho Santiago assisted with the language for the ethics commission ballot measure? (:

    • Shirley L. Grindle

      They were not involved in any part of the writing — so the answer is No.. The guts of the ordinance were written totally by myself, Bill Mitchell (former Chair of OC Common Cause), Fred Smoller and Mario Mainero (professors at Chapman Univ.). The County Counsel’s attorneys also wrote major sections dealing with the hearing/administrative/enforcement process to make sure it complied with state law governing charter counties (which OC is).

      • mutheta

        Shirley – The above was meant to be humorous. If you read the many articles in the Voice of OC about the Rancho District, it’s obvious that ethics and Rancho are an anomaly.

  • Kathleen Tahilramani

    And folks, Nelson cares deeply about one thing….himself. This is what he spends time on – himself. The employees, homeless, children, elderly are not on his radar. How many times does Nelson have to prove beyond doubt that he is a opportunist and a political hack. The thought of him becoming a Judge is just awful. It gave him no pause to get one over on Shirley – think about it. Do we really want to trust such a shallow person. I don’t.

    • LFOldTimer

      According to Shirley it was in black and white. She just missed it. That’s not to say that Nelson didn’t pull a fast one on us.

      • Kathleen Tahilramani

        Interesting. Shirley missed it – but I am sure nobody did anything to point out any changes,

  • Paul Lucas

    You forgot to mention that that pension Shawn signed up for upon his first election was the one that was the most lucrative of the choices. That’s the bulk of the criticism he got from his supporters. And then he crafted a ballot measure and lied about its effect to in order to sell it to the public? I really think this should give many people pause when he asks us to consider him for a bench to be a Judge.

    • LFOldTimer

      I thought he would make a good judge at one point. Now I’m having serious doubts about that. The pension thing put me on the fence. This one on the EC has evoked grave concerns. If the election was tomorrow I’d have a real hard time checking the box next to his name.

      • Paul Lucas

        I agree. this is really serious and disturbing. But whats even more disturbing is the ease in which one can become a judge in OC. No one runs for those offices resulting in the bulk of them being appointed. That process alone is tainted by patronage of the prosecutorial lineage of most judges. Those who get appointed are elected by acclamation due to lack of competing candidates. To feel the need to game the process with language and loop holes opposite of the stated intent of the initiative is even more disturbing. This is not the kind of behavior I want to see in someone decided cases in Superior Court.

        • RyanCantor

          Well, in Orange County, you can be a judge who blames a rape victim for being raped because she didn’t fight hard enough AND get re-elected to office.

          So yeah: “But whats even more disturbing is the ease in which one can become a judge in OC.”

          That’s totally on point.

        • Steve W.

          Paul, lots of people run for judge. A number of judgeships are on the ballot every two years.

      • UnitedWeStand

        Are you kidding me, LFOT, the Orange County Board of Supervisors can not be trusted. Fooled me once, shame on them, fooled me twice, shame on me. I was there in October and just shook my head. I felt the supervisors were laughing behind Ms. Grindle’s back, so this does not surprise me. She has been working on this for a very long time, God Bless her. . “Thou shall put no other God before me.”.that includes not making money your God. I only state this because at the beginning of each BoS meeting, an invocation is spoken. I guess the BoS aren’t listening, just like they have not listened to their constituents, they are apparently too addicted to money and power. Give it up Shirley. You have been in the trenches long enough. Thank you for all you have accomplished. Enjoy yourself while you can, you deserve it. Life is too short.

        • LFOldTimer

          I warned Shirley not to involve herself with that crafty bunch. That they’d just end up using her as window dressing for their own benefit. Looks like they pulled a fast one on her, based on the info in this article. How many more fast ones did they pull that we don’t know about yet? Only time will tell. But I have a feeling the bad news isn’t over by a long shot. This EC will likely be as big a farce as the OIR. Watch them put Stephen Connolly in charge. That would be the icing on the cake. 🙂

  • LFOldTimer

    Hold it. Shirley Grindle was an integral part of developing this Ethics Commission ballot measure, correct? And she was not given a copy of the final draft of the measure to evaluate prior to giving it her final approval and green light? Now does Shirley understand why the People are so cynical and why many of us believe this Ehtics Commission is just another scam and more Kabuki theater to pull the wool over the eyes if the OC residents? As I predicted, this Ethics Commission seems to be right on schedule to becoming a huge waste of taxpayer money and time. Same ‘ol, same ‘ol. Looks like you got snookered, Shirley. Sad.

    • Shirley L. Grindle

      The provision that is at issue is not in the ordinance that establishes the Campaign Finance and Ethics Commission, it is in the TINCUP ordinance and you are right — I should have caught it. We had copies of it before the final vote was taken, but I missed it and the CoCounsel did not tell any of us about the change. In any event – this has nothing to do with establishment and operation of the Commission.

      • LFOldTimer

        What else went unnoticed that will end up biting us down the road? I’m very skeptical. Looks like the taxpayers are going to get taken for yet another ride to nowhere. By this time we’re used to it. We’re well conditioned. Typical.

      • UnitedWeStand

        Give it up Shirley. You have been in the trenches long enough. Thank you for all you have accomplished. Enjoy yourself while you can, you deserve it. Life is too short.

        • LFOldTimer

          Wise words.

      • Jacki Livingston

        Ms. Grindle, you are a class act and a great lady. But I disagree with these gentlemen. Your voice is untainted. You have no personal agenda. I lost everything, for standing up and screaming about the embezzlement and fraud going on between the BoS and the medical community, including nursing homes. I sat for six months, crying and wailing about how unfair it was. But there was something I could do…something with the potential to explode in my face. I had to do it. Because I know what you know…there is nothing so important as speaking out for the greater good or for those who cannot speak for themselves. Yes, you have earned the right to relax. But I hear the biggest killer in old age is retirement. People have a job to do, they live longer. You have the potential to change the whole face of OC. I can think of no greater job to do, and I can think of no greater will of iron lady to do it. Fight the good fight, Shirley. We believe in you.