Block: Garden Grove Should Investigate Fire Chief’s Sweetheart Deal

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The Garden Grove City Council has now twice failed to vote to investigate the “no show” job deal given to former Fire Chief Dave Barlag.

Despite the Council’s failure to order an investigation as recommended by the Orange County District Attorney, Barlag resigned without notice on March 28.  The City has announced his position will not be filled, a pretty good indication it was an unnecessary position in the first place.

Barlag’s resignation raises more questions than it answers.  Why did he resign when he did?  Why would anyone resign a $200,000-plus position, one which had little accountability?  Did anyone pressure him to resign so as to prevent him from being required, as a City employee, from being forced to answer questions in a personnel investigation?

In any case, the matter of the secret deal given to Barlag by the City Council in the middle of the 2014 City election is not going to go away.  The Barlag deal continues to taint the City, especially the 3 current Council members who secretly gave Barlag the deal worth over $500,000 of taxpayer funds, and who now refuse to look into the matter.

Council members Kris Beard and Steve Jones have twice opposed motions to investigate the matter.  Council Member Chris Phan has twice recused himself (absented himself) from voting to authorize the investigation.

Phan’s excuse is that he is a Deputy DA himself and friends with the Deputy DA who drafted the report which found the Council committed serious violations of law when it secretly gave Barlag his deal.  He claims this creates a conflict of interest and thus he cannot vote to authorize the investigation.

To put it plainly, Phan has no conflict of interest whatsoever.  His duty as a Deputy DA is to abide by the law and enforce the law.  His duty as a City Council member is to abide by the law and enforce the law.  The OC DA, Phan’s boss, issued a report finding the City Council broke the law by giving Barlag a $500,000 plus deal in a secret meeting.  The OC DA also recommended Garden Grove conduct an investigation into the “no show” job Barlag received as part of the deal.

Phan actually has a duty to authorize the investigation, especially because his own conduct, as a member of the Council which broke the law, is at issue.

These same Council members are about to decide the future of the City by how they implement City Council District elections pursuant to a settlement and Court Judgment requiring action by the end of May in time for the November election.  Many critical decisions are about to be made about District boundaries, order of election of new Districts, terms of office, eligibility rules, and rules regarding filling of Council vacancies.

There is an old principle observed by many religious and spiritual paths, our legal system, modern psychology and common sense:  without confession of transgressions, without acknowledgment of imperfections, without admission of fault, without understanding one’s weaknesses, there can be no progress in correcting individual or collective failures and misdeeds.

Without a full public airing of the Barlag saga, which only an investigation can achieve, the City government is doomed to remain under suspicion as condoning public corruption.

The three Council members have very little time to absolve themselves of condemnation.  Their next Council meeting is April 12, at which time they will conduct a public hearing on the new City District Election Map.  On April 26 they are scheduled to conduct the final public hearing and conduct an initial vote on the new election ordinance.  At their May 10 meeting they are expected to take their final vote on the election ordinance.

In the meantime, their options are limited.  They should make the moral choice and simply vote for an independent investigation of the Barlag deal for a “no show” job.  Failing that, they can simply resign and let others take up the responsibility and authority they are unwilling to exercise.

Lastly, if they simply fail for a third time to authorize the investigation, whether by voting no or by Phan absenting himself from the vote, they risk something far worse that options 1 and 2.  They face a possible lawsuit by any person to enforce the provisions of California’s False Claims Act.

California’s False Claims Act permits any person to bring a lawsuit against persons involved in a conspiracy to obtain public funds utilizing false or fraudulent methods.  The Statute is complex, requires the Attorney General be given an opportunity to take over the lawsuit, provides for severe civil penalties and damages provisions, and allows the private plaintiff to recover a portion of the funds involved plus the individual’s legal costs and attorneys’ fees.

It is not a lawsuit conspirators involved in setting up a “no show” job worth over half a million dollars would want to face, as they and City staff would be subject to civil subpoenas requiring production of communications, including emails, texts, etc., plus depositions under oath and other discovery procedures.

Garden Grove deserves full disclosure of all the facts surrounding the “Barlag saga.”  It would be best if its City Council seized upon its third opportunity to deal with the issue by voting for the independent investigation its citizens deserve.

Joel Block is a retired labor management/employment attorney.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org

  • OCservant_Leader

    Great article and love the option or “threat” of filing the false claims if the Council doesn’t move forward with transparency!

    The false claims appears to allow for a “clawback” or recovery of fraudulent funds. This is what needs to happens and should send shockwaves throughout the OC County government who do these “sweetheart” deals…everyday.

  • LFOldTimer

    Interesting opinion, particularly from an attorney who is familiar with the legal side of this issue.

    My opinion is that if there is any way for the decision-makers of Garden Grove to bury this controversial matter and make it go away, they will. It’s government, after all, where it’s incredibly easy to skirt responsibility and waste other people’s money.

    Prepare for the old Clinton phrase “Now it is time — in fact, it is past time to move on”.

    The council will not act unless it is forced to act.

    That’s the way I see it.