At one point on Tuesday, as Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas publicly outlined a litany of sex crimes allegedly committed by Santa Ana City Councilman Carlos Bustamante over an eight-year period while he was a top county executive, he voiced concern that has been quietly swirling around the hallways of the county administration building for months.
“We want to know how a wolf was kept in charge of his prey for so long,” Rackauckas said.
It’s a question that could end up unraveling the top echelons of county government.
“Anybody involved in this that either knew what was going on, should have known what was going on or dragged their feet in making sure the Board [of Supervisors] didn’t know … anybody in that chain can be expected to be dealt with,” said Supervisor Shawn Nelson in an interview following Rackauckas’ announcement of the charges against Bustamante.
The situation has already directed uncomfortable questions toward County CEO Tom Mauk and County Counsel Nick Chrisos.
It’s also triggered an early retirement for the Orange County Human Resources director and put the head of Orange County Public Works on paid administrative leave. It’s also left the entire Public Works Department in crisis with an internal investigation continuing amidst a departmental reorganization.
Moreover, there are nagging questions about the county’s executive culture and how it happened that numerous warning signs about Bustamante’s alleged crimes went unchecked.
“The apparent failures in judgment in this case are staggering and massively disappointing,” asserted John Moorlach, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Tuesday in his regular email update.
Mauk has declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing investigation.
Rackauckas charged Bustamante with committing 12 felonies against at least seven women, including six counts of false imprisonment, three of assault with intent to commit a sexual offense and one count each of stalking and sexual battery by restraint. The DA also made misdemeanor charges of battery, assault and sexual battery.
Rackauckas alleges that between 2003 and 2011, Bustamante, who was an executive in Public Works, would lure women into his office via phone calls or emails under the pretense that he wanted to discuss work-related matters.
When each women entered his office, Bustamante closed the door behind her and begin hugging her, kissing her mouth, grabbing her breasts, moving her hands toward her vagina and masturbating in front of her.
When the women tried to escape, Rackauckas said, Bustamante would pin them against a wall and tell them that his office was soundproofed, so no one would hear them if they screamed.
Rackauckas also alleges that Bustamante sexually assaulted woman in elevators, stairwells and in his car.
If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 26 years and two months in state prison for the felony charges, plus an additional year and nine months in the Orange County Jail on the misdemeanor counts. He is also subject to a lifetime sex offender registration.
‘Tragic for the Victims’
Last October, Mauk, armed with an internal report, confronted Bustamante with allegations of his conduct and then allowed the married father of three children to resign his post but continue receiving his salary of more than $170,000 annually by placing him on a paid leave.
But that was not the first time Mauk had been made aware of Bustamante’s alleged conduct. A complaint had surfaced in March 2011. Yet at that time no specific action was taken to stop Bustamante’s actions, which Rackauckas now says continued unabated until his resignation in October.
Supervisor Bill Campbell, who was then board chairman, remembers that he told Mauk to look into the complaint and that it was referred to Human Resources. But because the county’s Human Resources department had been decentralized, it resulted in Bustamante being investigated by one of his own subordinates.
Sources who have been briefed on that first probe say it was a disaster. There are no notes from the inquiry, which cleared Bustamante with virtually no investigation. Campbell also now acknowledges that the March investigation was deeply flawed.
“This is tragic for the victims,” Campbell said.
“It’s clear from the follow-up with the folks once [Bustamante] left there that there was a state of fear. Tthey believed he had the power to get them fired,” Campbell said. “That is sad we let any employee be in that situation. … He had other bosses, and why they didn’t observe it I don’t know either.”
In August, The Orange County Register published a series of anonymous letters detailing Bustamante’s actions that had been sent to news outlets and county supervisors’ offices. Campbell said the issue quickly devolved into “a he-said, she-said,” so supervisors opted for hiring an outside law firm to do an investigation.
It’s an investigation that few people saw, including, for months, the DA’s office. Despite the firm’s eventually reporting harassment that could be deemed criminal, there was no referral to the DA. The matter was considered over and done with.
“I thought we protected our employees by getting him out of there,” said Campbell, noting that the 90-day payout seemed reasonable to avoid any future litigation claims from Bustamante.
Campbell noted that reference to criminal behavior “was one sentence in a report.”
“That kind of report should be handled by the CEO, and it was. I as chairman didn’t want to see the report,” Campbell said.
Yet Peter Hughes, the county’s internal auditor, did want to see the report.
He was apparently investigating a separate complaint against Bustamante that had come in through the county’s fraud hotline. And apparently Hughes encountered strong resistance from Human Resources Director Carl Crown on detailing the report, which was kept in a locked cabinet in his office.
“It was that investigation told us that [then-Human Resources Director] Carl Crown was stonewalling. This thing didn’t start in August, it started in March,” Nelson said.
Around that time, Nelson had finished working on a revamping of the Human Resources Department after a scathing audit that concluded that executives like Bustamante had the ability to hike their own salaries and get subordinates easy raises.
Nelson concluded that Crown was “incompetent” and should be removed immediately.
When Hughes, the internal auditor, read the conclusions that Crown saw, the report quickly found its way to Chrisos.
Chrisos then called an abrupt March closed session while both Mauk and Campbell were in Washington, D.C., to discuss a referral to the DA.
“I requested this closed session to advise the Board of potential anticipated litigation regarding the Human Resources investigation of alleged sexual harassment by former Orange County Public Works Department Executive Carlos Bustamante,” Chrisos wrote in a March 5 memo to the Board of Supervisors obtained by Voice of OC.
At the March 6 closed session, Chrisos was defending his office from critiques by Hughes, who questioned why Bustamante had been allowed to resign instead of being terminated. Chrisos apparently said that no one from the county counsel’s office had reviewed the conclusions of the law firm’s report.
“The blowback occurred at a closed session where I was not at, where the county counsel made a statement that was absolutely wrong,” Campbell said.
Indeed, the next day, Chrisos sent a memo to supervisors backtracking on the earlier denials of involvement.
“I was unaware of the contents of the Fisher and Phillips report at the time, and did not personally review it. However, since one of my attorneys did in fact review it and reviewed it again when Peter Hughes brought the issue to my attention at my request, but apparently failed to remember that he had reviewed it in October, I must take responsibility for the misstatement I made to you during the closed session yesterday,” Chrisos wrote.
He concluded his memo by noting: “I apologize deeply.”
Yet once Chrisos did read the report, it was headed for the DA. Campbell said all the players — Mauk, Hughes, Chrisos — did their job and were “heroes.”
“To the credit of our county counsel, as soon as he saw that, he said we better get it to he DA,” Campbell added.
Questions About Mauk’s Management
It was during this period that private rumblings about how Mauk, CEO since 2004, had handled this and other sensitive situations. Matters became more public and specific actions began.
Several high-ranking officials have already resigned or remain on leave in recent months. Crown quietly retired. Public Works Director Jess Carbajal, who was Bustamante’s immediate supervisor, is still on paid administrative leave.
Just after the Bustamante arrest Tuesday, the county’s largest employee union, which represents most of the workers allegedly harassed by Bustamante, sent a memo to workers calling on them to bypass Human Resources if they had sexual harassment complaints. “This kind of executive abuse no one has to take,” said Nick Berardino, general manager of the union, the Orange County Employees Association.
Berardino took direct aim at Mauk and other top officials for creating an atmosphere where there’s no accountability for executives. There’s a serious breach of trust among employees that now must be dealt with, he said.
“If you’re concerned about executive harassment, we can go around the executive hierarchy and go straight to the Board of Supervisors,” Berardino urged in his memo sent to workers. “No County employee should ever have to endure this kind of abuse.”
In his email update, Moorlach went out of his way to credit Hughes for “persevering through a very contentious investigation in spite of the stonewalling that he endured.”
Nelson, meanwhile, is consumed by the fact that the county’s internal systems kept the Bustamante issue silent from March to October and then let him resign quietly until the next March.
“Human Resources had every reason to have gotten to the bottom of this and they didn’t, and that’s unacceptable,” Nelson said.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas mentioned allegations of sexual assault against Carlos Bustamante dating back to his tenure at the state Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. Rackauckas did say that the DA’s Office will seek to present evidence that Bustamante sexually assaulted 12 other women, but he did not specifically mention the ABC.