Holding the Powerful Accountable in 2016

Above all else, journalists are responsible for holding those in power accountable. Fulfilling this mission is and always will be the driving force behind Voice of OC.

In 2016, we delved into how corporations spend to influence public policy, the ways in which politicians pull the levers of government to stay in power, and how they use their public offices for private gain. 

Here is a sampling of our best efforts:

A county supervisor crosses the line in his use of taxpayer-funded mailers

OC Supervisor Andrew Do in a still frame from one of his campaign videos.

County Supervisor Andrew Do broke new ground this year in using taxpayer funds to promote himself during his re-election, spending more than $240,000 in county funds on more than 1.2 million mailers billed as event invitations. The mailers, featuring text like “Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do is Helping the People of Orange County Find Their Unclaimed Property,” were apparently targeted using voter registration data and have raised questions about the use of mass mail by incumbents to reach their constituents during election season. The state ethics agency is investigating Do’s mailers, and a bill was re-introduced in Sacramento to explicitly ban such mailings within 90 days of an election.

Disney spends a record $1 million on the Anaheim City Council election

disney-money-in-anaheim-election-2016-for-web

The political stakes were high in Anaheim this year, as the city held its first election under a new district-based electoral system.

This reality was not lost on Disney, which broke its own campaign spending records in an effort to maintain its influence on the City Council

All told, the media conglomerate poured more than $1 million into political action committees that supported its favored candidates and opposed those aligned with Mayor Tom Tait.

The OC Register’s Top Editor Bows to Pressure From a Prominent Politician

OC Supervisor Todd Spitzer (left) and OC Register Editor-in-Chief Rob Curley. (Photo credit Nick Gerda/Voice of OC and unknown)

It was a quintessential Orange County story. Months after the Orange County Register reported on an incident in which county Supervisor Todd Spitzer carried a loaded gun into a Wahoo’s Fish Tacos and slapped handcuffs on a man who wouldn’t stop preaching to him, then Editor-in-Chief Rob Curley succumbed to pressure by Spitzer to make additions to the story that cast the supervisor’s actions in an entirely different light. Meghann Cuniff, the reporter who wrote the story and protested the change, was later laid off. Curley, who was fired after Digital First Media acquired The Register has since moved on to be editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wa.

 

Garden Grove mayor’s $58,000 gift from subsidized hotel

The front of the Great Wolf Lodge Waterpark Hotel in Garden Grove.

Nearly 2,000 Garden Grove residents got a free evening at the Great Wolf Lodge water park hotel earlier this year, and they weren’t the only one who benefited. The hotel put on a campaign fundraiser for Councilman Steve Jones, who was running for mayor and had previously voted for over $60 million in public subsidies for the project.

Disclosures that were filed past the deadline showed Jones, who won election in November, received an in-kind donation from the fundraiser worth more than $58,000. The large contribution is not illegal because the city has no limit on campaign contributions.

 Keeping watch on Mayor Pulido

Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido (left with white shirt) and Diego Olivares, a convicted cocaine trafficker. The images are from Olivares' Facebook page.

No politician in Orange County has warranted more watchdog coverage from Voice of OC than Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido.

Our most read story of 2016 delved into the relationship between Pulido and a downtown restauranteur with ties to convicted criminals and a penchant for lavish partying.

Then, when the election season rolled around Pulido, who won his 12th term as mayor in November, found a way around the city’s strict campaign finance laws.

Pulido’s entire re-election campaign was run through an “independent expenditure committee” run by a longtime political advisor George Urch, which was not subject to the city’s campaign finance limits.

Well over $75,000 was raised into the “IE” committee for Pulido’s re-election, including individual checks for $10,000 and $20,000, while $0 flowed through his candidate-controlled committee.

The catch is that it’s illegal for candidates to be involved in soliciting money for IEs or deciding how its funds are spent.

However, comments by Pulido overheard by Voice of OC journalists raised questions about whether he has crossed the line.

As Pulido was on the phone, he uttered the words “my campaign” and then suggested that the person on the other end of the line “talk to George Urch, who’s running an IE.”

Urch, meanwhile, insisted that the mayor was not involved in the IE’s activities.

Earlier in the year, Voice of OC revealed Pulido hadn’t paid back personal loans from wealthy patrons in 2013 and 2014 that could reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. If he doesn’t pay them back they could be considered gifts, which could put him in violation of the state’s $460 gift limit — particularly if the lenders have business before the council.

And in July, state authorities fined Pulido $1,366 in connection with $15,750 in debt that disappeared from Pulido’s campaign forms with no record of whether the debt was paid off or forgiven.

Jose Solorio spends campaign cash on apartment rent

When former state Assemblyman Jose Solorio sought to run for an open seat on the Santa Ana City Council, he had a problem: he lived with his family on the other side of town from the Ward 3 seat he was seeking, making him ineligible to run.

So he rented an apartment in the district just before the July deadline to establish residency there. And he decided to use $2,800 in campaign funds for his rent.

But state law bans campaign funds from paying for property leased to a candidate, which is what Solorio did. When Voice of OC asked him about it, he said it was legal because he was using part of his apartment as a campaign office. But the very advice letter he cited in defense said the arrangement was illegal.

After Voice of OC broke the story, Solorio personally reimbursed his campaign for the $2,800. And he ended up being fined $3,500 by state authorities for violating California’s Political Reform Act.

Denis Bilodeau’s multiple taxpayer-funded income streams

Denis Bilodeau

It pays to be connected in Orange County – especially if you’re Denis Bilodeau.

Bilodeau, who is Supervisor Shawn Nelson’s chief of staff, earned $177,000 in salary and benefits last year for his full-time county job. But Bilodeau – who depicts himself as a taxpayer watchdog – received another $83,366 in payments and benefits from other public agencies, records show. It’s far more outside public money than any of the other supervisors’ chiefs of staff.

Bilodeau’s critics question how he can fully serve taxpayers as a supervisor’s full-time right-hand man while also doing enough outside work to justify compensation that amounts to a second full-time government job.

Neither Bilodeau nor Nelson would comment, other than Bilodeau citing his background and experience to serve in the outside positions.

Nelson has himself been the subject of double-dipping allegations for receiving a $765-per-month car allowance from the county while also driving an Air Quality Management District car for free.

Despite Gang Injunction, Reports of Shootings Remain High In Townsend

A street sign in Santa Ana's Townsend neighborhood, where residents are fighting a gang injunction.

Adam Elmahrek/Voice of OC

A street sign in Santa Ana’s Townsend neighborhood, where residents are fighting a gang injunction.

When touting the controversial gang injunction in Santa Ana’s Townsend Street neighborhood, law enforcement officials have said that while the approach may seem heavy-handed to residents, in the end it makes them safer.

But a Voice of OC analysis of one significant indicator of neighborhood safety — the number of reported shootings — shows the injunction has had no discernible effect.

There were 64 calls to police regarding shootings within the Townsend boundaries in the roughly year and a half before the injunction was instituted in August of 2014; and 65 shootings in the same number of months since, according to the analysis of department data.

Critics of the injunction say the numbers, which include reported shootings through the middle of February, provide evidence for what they’ve been saying all along – that gang injunctions have no measurable impact on increasing neighborhood safety.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that former Orange County Register Editor-in-Chief Rob Curley is now the editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He is the editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wa. Also, an item regarding Supervisor Shawn Nelson running afoul of local campaign finance law was removed because the first article on the issue was published in 2015. We regret the errors.

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

  • kburgoyne

    Great job, VofOC team!

    Care must be taken with the line “journalists are responsible for holding those in power accountable”. One must not lose sight of what the REAL meaning of this statement is: “journalists are responsible for presenting the citizens with the information necessary to hold power accountable.” It is to be accepted the original statement is intended as a shorthand for the later.

    It is not the job of journalists to actually perform the ultimate accountability. It is the job of the citizens. In the process, the journalists play one of the most important roles — keeping the citizens informed and stopping power from sweeping dirt under the rug and hiding skeleton’s in closets to keep them out of view of the citizens.

    But why the distinction? Because there is risk in misunderstanding the former statement which can lead to the belief the enforcer role falls to the journalists, which leads to the journalists drifting into the role of judge and jury. The judge and jury roles fall to the citizens.

    To continue the analogy, the journalists’ role is the prosecutor AND defense attorney presenting the evidence to the judge and jury (the citizens). The difference between a legitimate journalist and a propagandist is whether the journalist accepts the roles of both prosecutor AND defense attorney, or whether the journalist performs only one role or the other depending upon their own agenda.

    Just like in a courtroom, the actual evidence available to support the prosecution and the defense in any given circumstance is seldom equal. It is also not the job of journalists to try and artificially make the evidence come out equal in some misguided attempt at non-bias. It is only the job of the journalist to make an equal EFFORT to present what information is legitimately available in support of both sides of the debate/issue.

    • Jacki Livingston

      I wouldn’t throw Norberto and Co a parade, yet. They are dangerously lazy about reporting on items that are deeply dangerous, like the FACT that Todd Spritzer and top officials are taking bribes and kickbacks from mob connected nursing home operators who are raping, robbing and killing patients while bilking billions from taxpayers. This is a filthy story, with mountains of evidence provided. Those not on the take are too cowardly to speak out. I care less that Fish Taco Toddy cuffed a disenter than the FACT that he used his wife and personal law client, Louise Armstrong, to rig an employee harassment case, so he wouldn’t have to testify under oath about taking bribes and ignoring criminal fraud reported to him. Why is he not asked about that misconduct, which could get him disbarred? Hundreds of SSA employees have stepped up to report the worst cronyism, nepotism, sexual harassment and misconduct, drug selling, fraud assistance that costs taxpayers huge sums, falsification of periodic reports to the state and feds, to get funds that they are not entitled to. VoC has not just been told, but SHOWN, so why are citizens not being given these facts? Either they are complicit, or they are selective about who they go after. Neither choice renders them worthy of journalistic respect.

      • kburgoyne

        Citations, please.

        • Jacki Livingston

          Citations about what?

        • Jacki Livingston

          http://articles.latimes.com/2008/aug/22/local/me-elder22

          Let’s start here, which is where it began. Then the Sac Bee did a series of reports about a guy connected to Russian mob, buying up facilities in OC & LA. You can see the relationship between Spritzer and Louise Armstrong by googling their names, and see he was her lawyer when she was attacked and nearly killed. The mere FACT that Spitzer, Nelson, Ryan and others were on my witness list, and Spitzer’s wife was allowed to assign my case to herself and then to his own personal law client that he has a deep and close personal relationship with is not just unprofessional, it is disbarment worthy. Spritzer is a disgrace, and BoX let’s him slide.

  • verifiedsane

    So much government corruption to report upon; and unfortunately the press is a most often very much a part of the political beast; making sure not to upset the slanted partisan apple cart…It would be nice if we received more investigative reporting, more depth from this reporting based in facts, and much less biased hyperbole.

  • Shirley L. Grindle

    With regard to Do’s 22 mailers that were sent at county expense to his constituents to gain name-identification for his re-election — it is doubtful Do would have won had the County not provided all these free mailers with his name plastered all over them (he only won by 0.2% of the vote). But, that is not the only thing the County is paying for. Seems that Do (unbeknownst to the other Supervisors) got the county purchasing department to secure a 5-yr $97,500 per year contract to hire a private “communications consultant” to write Do’s speeches for him and to communicate with Do’s constituents. Sounds like campaigning to me. The Board of Supervisors should put a stop to this ASAP.. Public funds should not be used for either the mailers or this “one of a kind” contract with Do as it essentially crosses over the line into campaigning..