Santana: OC Auditor Controller Leads CA Public Accountants Uprising

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

Orange County Auditor-Controller Eric Woolery publicly declared before a California State Senate panel two weeks ago in Sacramento that he was “coerced” by County Counsel Leon Page to approve questionable public sector payments for political mailers sent out during last November’s tight election for the first district county supervisors’ seat.

The county mailers, among a batch of nearly $500,000 in public newsletters questionably funded by taxpayers last year during election season, were credited by many as providing a critical edge in the First District county supervisors election, which Republican Andrew Do ultimately won by a narrow margin (0.4 percent) over his Democratic counterpart, Santa Ana City Councilwoman Michele Martinez.

Woolery is also raising alarm bells just as county supervisors are poised today to water down a key 1994 bankruptcy-era reform that requires public review before supervisors can borrow large amounts. Known as the Public Financing Advisory Committee, the panel used to have real power on public financings.

That potentially ends today.

While the county staff report downplays the change, the red-line version of the new ordinance is telling in what is proposed to be struck.

“No proposed public financing shall be considered by the Board of Supervisors except upon the express written recommendation of the Committee,” is the line that is cut out of the current proposed ordinance.

Woolery warns the change is “watering down transparency.”

“You had a PFAC that was put in place for a specific purpose. The Board of Supervisors were borrowing hundreds of millions to invest with the likes of (County Treasurer) Bob Citron…the ordinance was put in place to make sure there was an independent citizens group looking at borrowings,” Woolery said in an interview Monday. “It shines a light on the board.”

Woolery has found himself increasingly at odds with county supervisors, largely over questionable checks.

Woolery tried to reverse a questionable pension payment from taxpayers to Supervisor Shawn Nelson, a Republican who campaigned against pension abuses in 2010, then opted for a public pension once he got elected, then argued to get out of the system and then got himself back in with backdoor negotiations.

Once Nelson, county officials and retirement administrators finalized their latest deal – leaving Nelson as a pensioner as long as he made nearly $100,000 in payments to the retirement system (which he paid from his public office budget) – Woolery tried to intervene arguing Nelson had already denied a pension.

Woolery’s staff actually reversed Nelson’s pension payment, which prompted DA investigators to immediately pounce, accusing Woolery of criminal embezzlement.

When he tried to get his own attorney – to challenge what he saw as an illegal arrangement between Nelson and a host of public sector executives, including the County Counsel – Woolery was rebuffed by Nelson’s own colleagues on the county Board of Supervisors who declined to offer him – despite being a fellow Republican – a chance to make his case.

Despite Woolery’s own misgivings, he would have to rely on the same lawyer that was telling Nelson his deal was ok.

Woolery eventually approved the payouts.

But that’s when he began to seek the statutory ability to have his own legal advice when questioning a payment.

“We have to stand up for ourselves,” said Woolery, who this week is attending a statewide convention for the California State Association of County Auditors in Northern California.

Getting your own legal opinions is a right that both the Sheriff and County Assessor currently have. They can publicly trigger a process where they can seek authorization from the board of supervisors to hire their own specialized legal advice.

Ironically, when county supervisors back in 2012 needed former Orange County Auditor-Controller David Sundstrom to approve their radical plan to withhold $73 million in property taxes from Sacramento (later found to be illegal), he was publicly encouraged by supervisors to hire his own attorney to ensure his approval of the payment met muster in his own mind.

Yet when Woolery wanted to question the irregular pension payment to Nelson, he was shut down on getting his own legal advice.

Woolery’s legislation, SB292, has found a powerful ally in former Orange County Supervisor Pat Bates, who cited the Nelson situation as a motivation for immediate action at last month’s hearing in Sacramento.

The scariest part of this drama is that it is apparently quite common across California.

“The need is widespread,” said Bates – who now leads Senate Republicans – at last month’s hearing at the state capitol.

Indeed, 44 out of 58 auditor controllers from across California are supporting Woolery because they face similar situations.

“I’m in shock this is happening and that we even have to go this far,” said State Senator Janet Nguyen, herself a former Orange County supervisor, during the hearing.

Robert Stark, a former Auditor-Controller from Sutter County, told state senators at last month’s hearing he had been personally destroyed by standing up to questionable pension dealings by his board of supervisors.

Riverside Auditor-Controller Paul Angulo put it in even starker terms to the gathered state senators saying, “You can only have one master.”

“We have no shield. No defense. But we are moving millions,” Angulo said.

Former Supervisor John Moorlach, who is now serving on the state senate committee looking into Woolery’s bill, voiced some misgivings about the legislation.

Moorlach indicated Sheriffs and Assessors amended their powers as part of a broader look at their offices, a ballot initiative, which he seemed to support in this case for Auditors. Absent that, he seemed reluctant to piecemeal revisions to the authority of an independently elected office.

The Senate Government and Finance Committee ultimately approved Woolery’s bill on a 5-0 vote.

We’ll have to see what the full legislature has to say about how independent our auditor controllers should really be in California.

Yet Moorlach makes a great point.

Perhaps it is indeed time to have a statewide conversation, maybe in the form of a ballot initiative, one that really engages the public on why it’s important that auditors actually be able to look under the hood of government, just like Sheriffs or Assessors.

It was, after all, an accountant that took down Al Capone.

  • Ed Romero

    This is not the first time County Counsel has applied pressure on another County Employee. I remember when County Counsel advised the O C Probation Department to KEEP THEIR MOUTHS SHUT. The Probation Department was going to send out a letter to all the Clients (Probationers) that was SERVICED by that Gay Deputy Probation Officer that was orally copulating all those young Mexican Boys and Men in his Office while on duty. Everyone knew what he was doing, I even reported it to his Supervisor and he advised me that they were aware of what he was doing and THEY WERE WATHCING HIM. About 5 years later and who knows how many Victims he finally died from AIDS. The Probation Department wanted to send a letter but County Counsel back then would not allow it. Do you know how many Civil Law Suits that would have generated. I’m glad that the Probation Department was finally drained of all those Drug Dealing, Marijuana Smoking, Cocaine Snorting Corrupt Racist Lesbians that ran our Department. They were led by that former Chairperson of the O C GOP, former Judge, former Chief Probation Officer and finally former Director of Health for the County of Orange, all of this with a HIGH SCHOOL EDUCATION. If you think that Gay Deputy Probation Officer was a disgrace that Chief Probation Officer was even WORSE, if that’s possible.

  • Shirley L. Grindle

    Obviously the Auditor needs to rely on legal advice from an independent attorney –not from the County Counsel who works SOLELY for the Board of Supervisors.
    As for the campaign mailers with Andrew Do’s name plastered all over them which were paid for by the County taxpayers to the tune of $290,000 — this is called “campaigning at public expense:” and shame on the Board for allowing this to happen and shame on the County Counsel for authorizing it. Two bills are presently going through Sacramento – SB 45 and AB 1524 both will prohibit county-paid campaign mailers in the 90 days preceding an election in which a county official is running for office. There is no doubt in my mind that Andrew Do would have lost this election (he only won by 0.2% of the vote) if the county hadn’t produced and distributed over 1.1 million mailers with Do”s name on them at a cost to the taxpayers of slightly over $290,000.

    • LFOldTimer

      ” There is no doubt in my mind that Andrew Do would have lost this
      election (he only won by 0.2% of the vote) if the county hadn’t produced
      and distributed over 1.1 million mailers with Do”s name on them at a
      cost to the taxpayers of slightly over $290,000.”

      Yep. That’s a foregone conclusion. As dirty as that was I think I’d still rather have Do in office than Martinez though. But I agree. It was a dirty but legal deed that allowed Do to keep his board seat.

      • Shirley L. Grindle

        The issue is the use of public funds to promote a candidate for election. It isn’t about which candidate is better. This is something the Ethics Commission would have dealt with, had it been in business last year. And I too, am really disgusted that it has taken the county 9 months to get an Exec. Director on board The Sups tell me they are working with Ms. Hoard to appoint the Commissioners. Good news about Ms. Hoard (the new Exec. Director) — her fellow workers at the City of Orange have told me she is a real fireball and will get this Commission up and running. I look forward to meeting with her, particularly to get the
        campaign tracking system in place.

        • OCservant_Leader

          Yup – Do stole it.

    • OCservant_Leader

      Do stole the election. Point. Blank. Period.

  • LFOldTimer

    Okie Dokie.

    So we know what CAC Wollery allegedly tried to do and hit roadblocks.

    But what has CAC Wollery actually DONE that bettered the lives of OC residents by fighting corruption in county government? What has he actually accomplished?

    Honestly, I haven’t seen much on the positive side of the ledger.

    When I watch a college hoops game I don’t applaud a player for how many shots he takes. I applaud him ONLY if the ball that leaves his hand goes through the net.

    How many nets has CAC Wollery made since taking office? Name some.

    I don’t believe that the CAC has had all his powers neutered. At some point the excuses get old.

    • Cynthia Ward

      LFOT, Woollery routinely gives his time to VoiceofOC sponsored workshops to train activists in how to read the County’s accounting info, making go’t more transparent in an age when most agencies are making it harder to access those docs. That speaks volumes to me, and I appreciate it.

      • LFOldTimer

        That’s not changing government. That’s only providing a service to the public.

        Woolery is supposed to be a watchdog. Who has he bitten lately? And what good has it done us?

        You might go for the touchy-feely stuff. I’m different. I want to see some heads roll in county government to clean up the corrupted cess pool.

        • OCservant_Leader

          “Who has he bitten lately?” Good One OT!

      • OCservant_Leader

        If the Data …..is corrupted….it’s Garbage IN and Garbage OUT.

        OC are masters at manipulating the Data.

        The organized crime family figure this out –long ago.

        Only insiders have access to any Data. Liars figure and the figures do lie.

        None of it adds up. Trust me. It’s all funny numbers.

    • OCservant_Leader

      True.

  • OCservant_Leader

    Oh snap! AC Woolery is forcing an ethical showdown with the Corrupt OC BOS!

    He is sounding the alarm bells folks!

    These fools will BK the County again and quickly exit to their huge personal pension payments.

    Also, I just caught that BOS NELSON – used his public office funds to deposit into his personal pension account??? What the Fudge??? He can’t do this!

    An elected official can just commit “theft of public funds” right under our noses?

    Oh h*ll NO!

    • John Claxton

      It was a very quite transaction. The Voice put out one little article about Nelson using tax payer funds to pay his retirement bill (the objection by the AC Woery). All this thievery from Shawn Nelson, the guy who campaigned on and was elected on his promise of not taking a retirement benefit!

      • OCservant_Leader

        Is there an investigative journalist out there who wants to reveal the scandal of this OC BOS’s practice to take the public funds allotted to run their office (to serve the public) and slip the funds into their

        PERSONAL PENSION ACCOUNT!!!!!! This is called GRAFT!

        Is there an attorney out there who can sue on behalf of the citizens? Can we file a complaint with the Attorney General? My god we must do something to stop the stealing!

        • John Claxton

          I like the way you think. I helped take out PAPG John Williams. Challenge accepted!

  • verifiedsane

    From the stalled & feckless ethics commission, to the expensive joke played upon the people named the OIR, to the Sheriff’s & DA’s entrenched corruption & snitch scandal, to limiting or quashing critical public voices; This, to only mention some of the bitter icing blanketing the county’s poison cake of non-leadership.

    The BoS and their dirty subservient subordinates throughout OC government have shown time and time again that they deplore actual transparency, real oversight, or any true accountability to those they supposedly are bond to serve with loyalty and the highest ethical conduct/standards; The Citizenry.

    It seems the only possible solution at this juncture to OC’s institutionalized government corruption and cronyism infestation, is for a full & thorough house cleaning from top to bottom and possibly some outside intervention.

    Let us all hope enough of the voting public are paying attention to what’s really going on in their county government to finally say “enough is enough’ and kick these self serving sleaze buckets to the curb.

  • David Zenger

    It’s worse than this. The BoS has taken to handing embarrassing public documents from Dana Point Harbor to County Counsel to use specious attorney-client privilege to hide information from Wollery’s people.

    As an amusing observation: the upstanding Bates and Nguyen were perfectly happy having NO independent audit function at all when they were Supervisors. Bates would not have fared well if a real auditor looked into the County’s arrangements with Rancho Mission Viejo or Project Dimensions, Inc. And of course Nguyen constantly abused her office to promote herself.

    Woolery needs his own lawyer and subpoena power if necessary.