Supervisor: Voice of OC Publisher ‘Coached’ Him On Register Correction Demand

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The county of Orange alleges in a new court filing that Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana Jr. “coached” Supervisor Todd Spitzer on his demands for a correction to an Orange County Register article that scrutinized Spitzer’s behavior when he made a citizen’s arrest last year at a Wahoo’s Fish Tacos restaurant.

The county’s court filing – which is in response to a Voice of OC lawsuit under the California Public Records Act for disclosure of emails withheld by the county and related to the incident — depicts Santana as acting like Spitzer’s personal media advisor. The Voice of OC publisher even tells Spitzer that he “cared” about the supervisor and his political career, according to the filing.

(Click here to read the county’s court filing.)

It goes on to allege that Spitzer’s correction demand was done at Santana’s insistence, and that a new quote from Spitzer in the Register piece was “consistent with what Mr. Santana had urged.”

Santana Monday described Spitzer’s allegations as mischaracterizations of their conversations. He said he called Spitzer while reporting for a column, and that he was merely being transparent as to why it was an important story and what the implications were for Spitzer’s plans to run for district attorney.

“With all due respect to Supervisor Spitzer, I think he has mischaracterized our conversations,” Santana said. “From day one this has always been about finding out what happened that day at Wahoo’s [Fish Tacos] and whether Supervisor Spitzer’s actions were reasonable or not reasonable. Period. The documents we’re seeking we hope will shed light on that. Certainly Supervisor Spitzer’s [court] pleadings have not.”

Regarding the county’s allegation that Santana told Spitzer he “cared” about the supervisor’s political career, Santana said Spitzer was mischaracterizing his statements again, but he also said that he couldn’t completely recall exactly what he said.

“I don’t think I said that. But honestly I just don’t recall that aspect of our conversation,” Santana said. “At some point I might have said something like, this isn’t personal, I don’t have anything against you.”

The Sept. 3 Register article in question focused on an April 2015 incident in which Spitzer handcuffed a man at the Wahoo’s in Foothill Ranch after he wouldn’t stop preaching to the supervisor about God. Spitzer had a loaded gun in his fanny pack during the incident, and his actions came under intense scrutiny from multiple media outlets.

The Register gave a blow-by-blow account. Spitzer later claimed that then Register reporter Meghann Cuniff had left out a crucial detail that he had provided to her  – specifically that the man, Jeovany Castellano, was repeatedly asked to leave and assertively approached Spitzer before the supervisor decided to place him in handcuffs.

Spitzer pressured then Register Editor-in-Chief Rob Curley to correct the article and accused Cuniff, who was laid off from the paper earlier this year, of having a personal agenda.

On Oct. 29, almost two months after the article was published, the Register changed its online story to include a quote from Spitzer with the new details. The Register did not include a correction note, even though the piece was changed in a material way that cast Spitzer’s actions in a more favorable light.

Then this March, Voice of OC published an article that included a review of all available public records of the incident and quoted media experts who were highly critical of the Register for not including a correction note and for caving to pressure from a prominent politician. The story was written by reporter Adam Elmahrek, and supervised and edited by David Washburn, Voice of OC’s editor.

For that article, Voice of OC examined Cuniff’s audio recorded interview of Spitzer as well as police incident reports and a deputy’s interview of Spitzer recorded on a patrol car dashcam minutes after the incident. The review found no evidence to support Spitzer’s correction demand nor the quote that was added to the article.

The county’s court filing claims that Spitzer didn’t want to seek the correction until Santana had pushed him to do so, and that Santana had argued the alleged discrepancy constituted “irresponsible journalism.” Santana “insisted” that Spitzer demand the correction and told Spitzer he didn’t think “highly” of Cuniff’s work.

After the Register changed the article, the filing states Spitzer texted Santana and wrote, “I need your guidance. Register updated story to include castellano coming back at me. Is that good enough?”

Santana responded: “Lemme check…on the road…yet that was the main key missing fact…u should be good…call u at 1:30 p.m.”

Santana said Spitzer twisted the conversation to make it look as if he was acting as Spitzer’s confidant and media consultant. In fact, Santana was grilling Spitzer about the incident, the Voice of OC publisher claims.

During Santana’s interview with Spitzer, the supervisor insisted that Cuniff had reported the story inaccurately, Santana said. That’s when Santana told Spitzer if that’s true, he should be seeking a correction from the newspaper. Santana described his statements as a challenge to Spitzer’s contention that Cuniff’s reporting was inaccurate.

The timeline as presented in the Register made Spitzer “look like a maniac,” Santana said he told Spitzer. Regarding his comments about Cuniff, Santana said he was pointing out that she was a young reporter and he wasn’t very familiar with her work. Though he acknowledged he told Spitzer he wasn’t impressed with what he had seen so far.

Santana said he interpreted Spitzer’s text message as “are you off my back now” that the Register vetted Spitzer’s correction demand and made a correction to the timeline of events in the article.

“Everything I said to Supervisor Spitzer was in the interest of transparency as a reporter to let him know what the implications of his actions in print would be and how key timelines made him either look odd or manic, and there would be a big difference for both,” Santana said.

“I felt it fair as a reporter to let the official know exactly what I was looking into. And that’s why I went into such great detail with him.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

  • kburgoyne

    Interesting. After having held an in-person conversation with Norberto, I find it rather difficult to believe Norberto would have any interest in “helping” ANY politician of any stripe. His attitude seems to be rather strongly that he doesn’t trust any of them regardless of who they are, what leanings they claim to have, or whether they’ve managed to actually do anything right in the past. While that’s much harder on the politicians that I tend to be, I conclude its probably the best attitude for a political reporter to have. We mostly rely upon them to keep the dirt from being swept under the carpet regardless of who’s trying to do the sweeping.

    • Dartmouth Worried

      Because he was trying to curry favor with Spitzer so that Spitzer would continue to feed him damaging information about the district attorney and other county officials. It’s pretty obvious where he gets a lot of his information.

  • Cynthia Ward

    County missed out on the big ticket excuse being used lately. Because Spitzer is a member of the Bar, you say EVERY COMMUNICATION he engages in, from lunch preference to memo for upcoming issues to demand to pick up his dry cleaning becomes “privileged” because it is a “confidential attorney communication” despite not being subject to actual confidential matters, No, I am not kidding, some (including City of Anaheim) are making that case that ANY document related to a lawyer in any context is “confidential” and not subject to CPRA. Now you know why I am still in court 2 years later on a CPRA case trying to get documents for a negotiation no longer even being negotiated. Records related to Charles Black in the 2013 Stadium negotiations (his invoices and billing records) are “privileged” according to the City of Anaheim, because he is a lawyer. This is the world we live in today, we THINK that because we pay the Invoice we have a say in how it is spent. We would be so wrong…and now I just gave the County an idea on how to not let anything out of the building. Probably shouldn’t have mentioned that…although I don’t think they can change their tune now that the case is answered.

  • Paul Lucas

    This “story” is starting to look like a David Lynch screen play. Just surreal as all get out.

  • LFOldTimer

    I really feel sorry for Meghann Cuniff. Looks like she got thrown under the bus – twice. And then she lost her job. By all accounts in the previous linked article she did everything by the book. Reportedly she even recorded her interview with Spitzer which apparently did not indicate the proselytizer was approaching him in a threatening manner prior to hooking him up. Nothing in the police report about it. Nothing on the police dashcam audio recording to support it. There was no account from witnesses at the scene that the proselytizer was moving toward Spitzer (let alone in a threatening manner) prior to getting handcuffed. If it waddles and quacks it’s usually a duck.

    This just stinks to high heaven. It smells like a cover-up. Time for Spitzer and the county to come clean. If you’ve got nothing to hide why not release the emails to Pasco to provide the taxpayers with full disclosure? Why fight it? Interdepartmental county communications should be fair game. All of you are paid on our dime. If you don’t want us to know what you’re doing while on the county clock – go find another job.

    I hope Meghann Cuniff has a soft landing. Her published reports all appeared professional to me. Blaming her for Spitzer’s rotten judgment is so crude and offensive.

    And why no statement from Curley? His newspaper has been accused of violations of ethical standards of journalism. Silence sure doesn’t play well with the general public.

    • David Zenger

      Curley got laid off a couple weeks ago.

      • LFOldTimer

        What goes around comes around.

  • Jacki Livingston

    Spitzer is a POS, pure and simple. He will use anyone and throw anyone under the bus. His own wife, and his close friend and former client, are under judicial review for helping him pull his dirty tricks. He doesn’t care. The man has no soul, no integrity and no decency. What he needs isn’t a coach….what he needs is no job.

  • OCservant_Leader

    It’s a Public Record Act Request! Release the documents!

    Try to add more drama and blame Norberto now? That’s Too bad, I believe he did try to save the gun-toting Supervisor from himself.

    Really? This is the best PR strategy the Taxpayer-paid campaign Consultants could come up with?

    • David Zenger

      The best part about this is that every Spitzer flailing just makes this fiasco drag out. I’m really starting to think the press release that was smothered has high comedic value.

  • Bob Brock

    Why didn’t Norberto ever disclose he was coaching Spitzer behind the scenes? What reporter says “You should be good” to a subject he is “grilling”? Seems like Norberto should’ve disclosed this. He never represented himself to be involved in shaping the story behind the scenes. Not much transparency for a blog that begs for donations claiming transparency.

    • kburgoyne

      Because of the little detail that Norberto disagrees with the characterization of their conversation. Odd how if somebody called me a child molester I wouldn’t rush to “disclose” something that I knew not to be true. I wonder how many other people would rush to “disclose” stuff other people claim about them but which they disagree with.

  • David Zenger

    Ironically, the “corrected” version makes Spitzer seem even nuttier than his first version. In the second version Bible Boy didn’t get aggressive until after Todd got his gun from his car and returned to the restaurant.

    But what on Earth is the relevance of this? Santana tells Spitzer that if the story was wrong he should get it corrected. So what?

    The lawsuit is about turning over documents about an alleged County press release addressing Spitzer’s egregious behavior and the communications between him and Jean Pasco.

    Sooner or later Rackauckas’s crew is going to get hold of that.