County Auditor Controller Halts Payments on Supervisors’ Mailers

Supervisors Andrew Do and Lisa Bartlett, the two members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors who serve on the CalOptima board.

Supervisors Andrew Do and Lisa Bartlett, the two members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors who serve on the CalOptima board.

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Orange County Auditor Controller Eric Woolery is halting payments on several mass mailers sent by supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Andrew Do over concerns that they may violate state regulations that limit how elected officials’ can display their names on publicly funded mail.

Woolery’s decision comes after a Voice of OC story last Thursday raised issues about two mailers recently sent by the Do’s First District office and Bartlett’s Fifth District office.

It also comes amid Do’s reelection campaign and after Garden Grove Councilman Phat Bui, who is running against Do for the First District seat, filed a complaint last week with the state’s ethics watchdog about mailers sent by Do’s office.

Woolery said his office first started looking into mailers sent by Do and Bartlett two weeks ago, after a member of his staff raised questions about an invoice for mailers paid for by Bartlett’s office.

County Auditor Controller Eric Woolery. (Photo courtesy: Eric Woolery Facebook page)

County Auditor Controller Eric Woolery. (Photo courtesy: Eric Woolery Facebook page)

“It came forward when one of my staff, who I’ve asked to act as watchdogs and bring items of interest to my attention, brought up an issue with paying one of these invoices,” said Woolery.

Differing Opinions

After reviewing invoices for other mailers serviced by the same vendor, including several in Do’s office, Woolery says he became concerned that they might violate the Mass Mailing Act, which restricts how elected officials statewide can display their name and likeness on taxpayer-funded mailers, with the intent of keeping incumbents and other candidates on a level playing field

Woolery’s reading of the law is apparently at odds with that of County Counsel Leon Page, and his decision to halt the payments has rankled some in county government who say he is overstepping his bounds by going against the opinion of the county’s top attorney. Page and county attorneys have a policy of not speaking to the press.

Both Bartlett and Do’s offices have said they mailed the fliers with the blessing of county attorneys, who review the mailers for compliance with the county’s branding policy and the Mass Mailing Act.

Woolery, meanwhile, says the act allows just a single mention of elected officials, while the mailers sent by Bartlett and Do contain at least three.

It prohibits references to elected officials on mailers except under a few exceptions, such as in a letterhead, return address or to state that an official is attending an event. After that, there should not be “any other reference to the elected officer” — including their photo, signature, pronouns like “I” or “we,” and references to their district.

Bartlett didn’t return a call for comment. Although Do’s office refused Monday to comment to Voice of OC, Do, in an interview with The Orange County Register, questioned why Woolery was challenging the advice of county lawyers, who review and approve mailers before they are sent.

“Sometimes Mr. Woolery forgets his role as an auditor,” Do told the Register. “He is impugning the work of county counsel… It is extremely puzzling that he would come up with a legal assessment or suspicion without consulting the lawyer for the county.”

Woolery said he is holding off on the payments until he has the chance to meet face-to-face with Page, a meeting which is not scheduled until after Woolery returns from vacation on April 13. Woolery has not consulted any outside attorneys about the mailers.

Woolery argues that it is not only within his authority, but his statutory duty, to withhold payments if the mailers are illegal.

“We have a duty to look at these payments, and that’s what we’re in the process of doing. If it’s valid and legal, we’ll go ahead and pay it,” Woolery said. “As for county counsel’s opinion, I have not heard that yet.”

He and his spokeswoman stressed that although they did not intend to make the issue public until after Woolery met with Page, news articles and inquiries from an Orange County Register reporter forced them to disclose the fact.

A Register reporter called Woolery’s spokeswoman, Meg Waters, the day after Voice of OC’s story published, inquiring about the mailers.

“This isn’t a brand new law — it’s been around a long time,” Waters said. “There may be some provision that we’re not aware of…and that’s why [Woolery] and [Page] are going to meet next week.”

Although the FPPC does not comment on specific issues, FPPC staff said in an interview that in general, exceptions apply to the mailing as a whole, and agencies should pick the one exception that is most applicable to a mailing.

However, under some exceptions in the law, more than one mention can be appropriate, although it’s not clear how many mentions would be crossing the line.

Waters said that Woolery’s staff has not sent written notices to Bartlett and Do advising them of their decision to halt the payments, noting that the decision is preliminary and their office has yet to review all the flyers.

So far, Woolery has stopped $43,766 in payments on six mailers sent by Do for a health fair, tax preparation event, job fair and unclaimed property event. They have also identified invoices and purchase for at least four other event mailers.

Woolery has also stopped $118,340 in payments for two mailers sent by Bartlett to 100,620 homes, advertising the South County Pet Expo and OC Parks Adventure Day.

“We aren’t saying that any or all are illegal, we haven’t seen all the flyers yet,” said Waters.

Strained Relations

In the past, Woolery has pushed back at supervisors in an attempt to expand the scope of his office. In 2015, he lobbied for supervisors to return oversight of the county’s internal audit office to the auditor-controller, reversing a reform put in place after the county’s 1994 bankruptcy.

That change also put Woolery, who is independently elected, in charge of a fraud hotline which handles reports by whistleblowers inside the county government, misuse of county resources, and major violations of county policy.

He also pushed, unsuccessfully, to get supervisors to approve separate legal counsel for his office, arguing that there is an inherent conflict for county counsel to advise the auditor controller when it comes to issues with the Board.

Aside from Woolery, Garden Grove Councilman Phat Bui, who is running against Do in his bid for reelection as Supervisor on June 7, has also raised concerns about the use of supervisor’s names in mass mailers.

Bui filed an FPPC complaint last week — on his official campaign letterhead — challenging three mailers sent by Do’s office.

“The mailing in question features Andrew Do’s name three times, including one reference in larger type than any other copy in the announcement,” the complaint states, referring to a mailer promoting a tax filing event.

Bui said he did not include Bartlett in his complaint because he was not aware of any potential violations by her office until he read an article about her mailers, two days after he filed the complaint on March 29.

Bui has claimed, based on mailers given to him by constituents, that Do has sent more than 20 mailers that potentially violate state law.

“I think its another example of corruption in our county government. The supervisors think they can just ignore the law,” Bui said.

In his interview with the Register, Do characterized Bui’s complaint as a political stunt.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

  • Shirley L. Grindle

    I would hope that Mr. Woolery will ask the FPPC to review the mailers — it is the State law engendered by the Political Reform Act, that would prevail in this case. No doubt the County Counsel’s office may only have looked at the County’s so-called “branding” policy, but the State law would prevail if there is a conflict between the two. My compliments to Mr. Woolery for questioning the legality of these mass mailings by the County Supervisors.

    • Theresa Roberts

      Shirley, you should report on this – to the FPPC – The threats have already begun. Do’s COS has been inquiring how to make the County independently elected Auditor-Controller be appointed by the BOS – instead of being elected by the people. Taking way the rights of the citizens of OC!

  • LFOldTimer

    Hopefully this is not just a little sideshow for the peasants to feign the appearance that somebody in a watchdog position is actually monitoring these clowns. Like with Nelson’s pension payment that someone mentioned. Woolery was hot to trot over that but suddenly it disappeared liked flatulence in a windstorm. Until Woolery actually sinks his teeth into one of these rascals and won’t let go – call me skeptical.

    • Kathleen Tahilramani

      Hmmmm…..good point. I too want to know the outcome of Nelsons pension grab.

    • OCservant_Leader

      Good point…Agreed. What happened to the payments VOC??

      Nelson’s Pension Grab Scam is Outrageous! Think of all the moving parts in play to benefit this ONE individual.

  • OCservant_Leader

    These never-ending campaign mailers require a full investigation! To VOC – map out how the machine works, all the players who must work in collusion to pull this off this operation (for decades) like a flip of a switch. This is RICO!

    Who were all the “Consultants” getting PAID? (I can’t wait to see this list)!
    How were these “contracts” awarded? How much County staff time was used to “supervise” these vendors? Name all the staff who “approved” these illegal campaign contracts.

    We need accountability and all politicians and employees involved in RICO need to be prosecuted and stripped of pensions!

  • Kathleen Tahilramani

    There needs to be close scrutiny of County Counsel specifically Leon Page. He is a county employee and is accountable to the taxpayers. He has reduced his scope of action to a mere pawn of the BOS with the small minded mission of making whatever they want done happen regardless of the letter and or spirit of the law. He is their “make it happen” Leon Peon & that takes little talent and the ability to quash what you know is really the true and right thing to do. He will have to live with himself and look in the mirror knowing that he is looking at a sell-out. It seems to not bother him a wit that he has lost the respect of the rank and file and that shallowness makes him a real snake in the grass.

    • Debby Bodkin

      As a non attorney, I do not know if Supervisors Bartlett and Do violated any laws and/or whether County Counsel Leon Page approved the expenditures; however, Mr. Woolery is protecting the integrity of his job and his reputation, while protecting the taxpayers’ interests — very refreshing in Orange County, California.

      I am sure that the OC Board of Supervisors maintain a legal malpractice insurance policy on behalf of the County so in the event County Counsel Leon Page provides negligent legal advice, there is a way to recoup damages.
      This a Win/Win for the County and OC Board of Supervisors.
      Thank you to Mr. Woolery for acting on behalf of the citizens who put him in charge. It is tragic that the OC Board of Supervisors do not take their oath as seriously as Mr. Woolery.

  • John Claxton

    What happened to the payments he was withholding for Nelson’s pension grap? It quitly disappeared.

    • Kathleen Tahilramani

      Excellent question! Voice of OC, could we get an update?

  • John Claxton

    “I think its another example of corruption in our county government. The supervisors think they can just ignore the law,” Bui said.

    They get away with it because they have an attorney that thinks the the law is whatever he says it is.

  • LFOldTimer

    How is it that Do sent out 6 mailers for about $44,000 and Bartlett spent about $118,000 on just 2? Did Bartlett send hers out by certified mail? I guess when you’ve got a $6B budget of other people’s money you can spend it like water runs through a sieve.

  • Bill Myers

    Big THANK YOU to Eric Woolery for doing the right thing and not giving into political pressure. I for one don’t want to be paying for Do and Bartlett’s stupid mailers. I got one a few weeks ago and never would of guessed my tax dollars paid for it. What a disgrace. Also big thank you to Phat Bui for filing the FPPC complaint that brought this to everybody’s attention. You went up a notch in my book. You’re now at notch 1.

  • Ed Romero

    Someone should do a study on how many Members of the Board of Supervisor’s have either been indicted or resigned because of corruption. I remember back in the 60’s and 70’s sometimes all the Members of the Board of Supervisor’s was in some kind of criminal mess.

  • Dailysportseditor

    A big thanks to Thy Vo and Voice of OC for bringing the matter of the taxpayer-funded political mailers to the attention of the public. [“A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy.” – Nelson Mandela]

    Hopefully a thorough and unbiased investigation will be conducted of the entire affair so that Orange County residents will finally be told the complete truth about the mailers, the personnel who authorized them, the attorneys who approved them and how long have inappropriate County-funded politically-motivated mailers been utilized.

    • John Claxton

      Hopefully a thorough and unbiased investigation will be conducted of the entire affair so that Orange County residents will finally be told the complete truth about the mailers, the personnel who authorized them, the attorneys who approved them and how long have inappropriate County-funded politically-motivated mailers been utilized.

      In Orange County with the most worthless DA ever? Ha! I don’t think so.

  • Diego Vega

    County Counsel Leon Page most likely did not say “It’s legal.” He likely said “It’s not illegal.” Regardless, if Page’s lips are moving, he’s lying to protect the BOS.

  • LFOldTimer

    High-Five to Eric Woolery. Somebody is finally watching over the wolves den. It’s about time. Just be careful, Eric. There is no honor among wolves. Don’t let them pull a Webster Guillory on you. Speak softly and carry a big stick.

    • Theresa Roberts

      The threats have already begun. Do’s COS has been inquiring how to make the County independently elected Auditor-Controller be appointed by the BOS – instead of being elected by the people. Taking way the rights of the citizens of OC!

      • LFOldTimer

        That’s all we need. Another BoS appointed watchdog! ha. Look how that worked out with the OIR and Stephen Connolly. This is just an intimidation tactic on Do’s part to shut Woolery up. Hopefully it just motivates Woolery to come down on Do like a ton of brick. A watchdog by nature is supposed to be always vigilant and tenacious. Hopefully Woolery doesn’t fold on us in light of this intimidation.

  • OCservant_Leader

    Thank you AC Eric Wollery for doing the job you were elected to do!

    You are standing independent of the Graft Machine of the BOS. Wow

    It takes all players acting in collusion to continue to pull off the corruption of The OC.

    The scam of “county counsel” said “we could do it”…is BS!

    Can’t wait to see the punishment the BOS’ Chief of Staffs are gonna unleash!

    • Theresa Roberts

      They are just jealous because they can’t control the Auditor-Controller (who is elected by the county as a whole) as opposed to their bosses who are elected by district. See my comment above. They can’t take the heat.

      • Kathleen Tahilramani

        They are so predictable. All about power and control. Hopefully, one day the harder they grasp for both the faster it will slip away. Those pesky elected’s that refuse to kiss the ring – but beware they will plot a Webster on you!!!!

  • Kathleen Tahilramani

    Thank you Mr. Wollery. Your actions show respect for the law and demonstrate you have both intestinal fortitude and integrity. It is very challenging to stand up to the Board and do your job in the honest manner that the public expects and deserves. Thank you for being open and accessable to the press. In my view, only cowards with something to hide have a “policy” of not speaking with the media. I wish you the best and I am very impressed that you and your staff act in the best interest of the public.
    Now, that said, take care,you are dealing with cunning and deceptive people who are more than willing to bring harm to others to advance their greedy and corrupt aguenda. The Board and their high level lapdogs fancy themselves as players in a local level “house of cards” episode. Sadly, they are bush league banditos playing toddler games resulting in a continuous clown car circus. You sir are taking the gas out of their cars and the money out of their slush funds….well done.

  • David Zenger

    We finally have someone at the County doing real auditing work. Well done, Mr. Woolery.

    As far as impugning County Counsel I would simply say that when that office quits acting as Special Counsel to the Supervisors, and starts representing the public’s interests, we will all be a lot better off. Unfortunately, the Chrisos Doctrine seems to still be ingrained.