The Orange County Grand Jury, citing the county’s 40-year history of political corruption, Monday recommended creation of an independent ethics commission to advise elected officials of ethical pitfalls and increase public confidence in government.
“Trust in government is dependent upon officials that place the public interest ahead of their own,” according to the 32-page report titled “A Call for Ethical Standards: Corruption in Orange County.”
Jurors “believe that there exists a direct correlation between ethical conduct and good governance,” the report declares.
The panel recommended that the Board of Supervisors create a blue ribbon commission to study government ethics programs within California and around the nation and within a year propose an Orange County ethics reform program that includes oversight.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer said he and Shirley Grindle, author of Orange County’s campaign contribution ordinance, are writing their own ethics commission proposal that they’ll present to the Board of Supervisors next month.
“Their [the grand jury’s] conclusion is right,” said Spitzer. “We need an ethics commission.”
But Board of Supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson took immediate issue with the grand jury, saying the ethics of any oversight body or blue ribbon commission would be no better that than the ethics of the elected officials who appoint them.
It’s up to the news media and the voters to hold government officials accountable, he said in a telephone interview.
“A truly informed public that votes is the ethics commission,” said Nelson.
But the grand jury proposed that ethics commissioners not be appointed by members of any group or agency they would oversee.
“It cannot be emphasized enough that freedom to act without political interference is paramount to the success of any ethics program,” the report declared.
Supervisor John Moorlach said he’s considering the grand jury’s report and wants to understand all of the issues.
“I still have to react to it,” he said. But, he added, he plans to propose a separate commission to write a county charter and that may be a way to also handle the ethics issues.
The offices of Supervisors Janet Nguyen, Pat Bates and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas didn’t respond to a request for comment on the grand jury report.
In addition to the issues outlined by the grand jury, Spitzer said for the nearly 10 years that Rackauckas has been district attorney the county has had a “tone of tolerance” when it came to ethical issues.
In its report, the grand jury noted that while Orange County is the sixth largest county in the nation, Los Angeles-based commercial television and radio stations generally don’t cover local government in Orange County and many community newspapers that acted as watchdogs have closed over the years.
The grand jury report states a key provision of an ethics program would be offering formal and informal ethics advice to both public officials and government employees.
The program should operate a hotline for government employees and the public to report suspected unethical conduct, the jury proposed.
“In a healthy ethics environment,” the grand jury observed, “leaders are not afraid of an independent ethics program because they understand that the best measure is to do everything possible to prevent officials and employees from creating an appearance of impropriety.”
An ethics oversight body should “be free to act without political interference … have jurisdiction over each County department, agency, commission, and board and joint powers authority regardless of whether the head of such a body is elected or appointed … [and] have ethics-related jurisdiction over the elected leadership of the County,” the report declares.
Such an oversight body “must have the authority to enforce compliance through the use of warning letters, administrative settlements and the issuance of annual public reports,” the report asserts.
It emphasized the importance of training county elected officials, employees and lobbyists about what is and isn’t ethical. “What is sometimes technically legal doesn’t always equate to what is ethical,” according to the report.
Elected officials would not be the only ones to benefit from ethics training and oversight, the grand jury declared. “It is evident to the Grand Jury that some employees at all levels of county government are unable or unwilling to learn from the mistakes of the past.”
The jury noted that in 2010 the United States “fell out of the top 20 least corrupt nations according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.”
U.S. corruption commonly “happens behind the scenes — manipulation of contract specifications; sweetheart deals with developers; ‘pay to play’ scenarios; and the hiring of family members, friends or close associates by companies doing business with government. Open bribery is rare.”
Decade after decade since the early 1970s, Orange County has been rocked by one political scandal after another that sent to prison members of the Board of Supervisors, the sheriff, a member of Congress, some of the state’s biggest political donors and dozens of others.
In addition, the county declared bankruptcy in 1994, which at the time was the largest in the nation by a government body.
“Sadly,” the grand jury reported, “it is the Grand Jury’s hypothesis that untoward behavior continues and is actively festering in today’s political environment. In point of fact, this and several other studies conducted by the 2012-2013 Grand Jury address the fact that corruption has permeated all levels of the organization, and does not apply only to elected officials positioned visibly in the public eye.”