A Superior Court judge on Tuesday denied Voice of OC’s request under the California Public Records Act for documents showing what top county officials knew when they allowed former executive Carlos Bustamante to quietly resign in October 2011, months before District Attorney Tony Rackauckas charged Bustamante with a dozen felony sex crimes against female employees.
In turning down the request, Judge David McEachen wrote that his civil court “has no power” to overturn a June 24 protective order issued by a criminal court hearing Bustamante’s case.
McEachen also said it was unclear whether that protective order covers all of the records sought by Voice of OC, so he ordered the county to detail each of the documents that fall under the records request and whether it believes the protective order applies.
Those “privilege logs” are due by Oct. 30, and Voice of OC could refile its request if the logs show documents not covered by the protective order.
Meanwhile, Voice of OC plans to appeal McEachen’s ruling to the 4th District Court of Appeal. The news agency is already appealing the criminal court judge's decision to issue the protective order.
Voice of OC’s attorney, Kelly Aviles, said the documents are indeed public records and are critical to understanding whether the county followed proper procedure when it received complaints about Bustamante.
“It really begs the question: Why is the county spending so much money trying to keep these records secret?” asked Aviles. The county would have to pay Voice of OC's legal fees if the news agency prevails.
The county argued that to allow the media to review the source documents would jeopardize Bustamante’s right to a fair trial as well as the rights of his alleged victims and would violate attorney-client privilege for county supervisors and senior managers who examined the Bustamante affair.
Bustamante, who was also a Santa Ana city councilman and at one time a rising star in the local Republican Party, was charged last July after serving since 2003 at the highest levels of county government.
In the wake of his criminal complaint against Bustamante, Rackauckas openly questioned how Bustamante was protected for so long inside the county bureaucracy, given the nature of sexual harassment allegations against him.
“We want to know how a wolf was kept in charge of his prey for so long,” Rackauckas said at the time.
After county Human Resources officials cleared Bustamante of any wrongdoing from internal harassment complaints in early 2011, workers sent anonymous letters to news media and county supervisors to spur action.
Those public complaints eventually triggered the hiring of a private law firm to investigate the allegations.
There are questions about how the October 2011 internal report filed by the law firm was distributed and who saw it. What is clear is that Bustamante immediately agreed to a 90-day severance after being confronted with the report by then county CEO Tom Mauk.
Yet after Bustamante resigned the same month that the report was issued, the report remained locked away in a Human Resources cabinet until March 2012.
Norberto Santana Jr. contributed to this report.