Dave Zenger, until recently a senior aide to Board of Supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson, has filed a legal claim against the county alleging that Nelson abruptly fired him after other county supervisors complained about Zenger conducting, at Nelson's direction, numerous investigations into alleged improper use of public funds.
“Mr. Zenger was demonstrably terminated in retaliation for Mr. Zenger’s conscientious inquiries and investigations into questionable or possibly illegal schemes, projects and activities by county personnel,” reads a June 6 letter sent by Zenger’s attorney, Steven Dial – who also represents county Human Resources manager Kathleen Tahilramani in another whistleblower lawsuit against the county, which is scheduled for trial on Nov. 18.
“These projects were initiated and directed by Supervisor Nelson as well as Supervisors [Janet] Nguyen and [Pat] Bates, and often featured the involvement of lobbyist Ruby Wood. These same individuals, as a result of Mr. Zenger’s conscientious inquiries into possible wrongdoing, conspired among themselves and pressured Supervisor Nelson in particular to terminate Mr. Zenger in retaliation for his protected activity,” reads the June 6 claim letter.
Zenger and his attorney also declined comment.
Nelson disputed that Zenger was fired because he was a whistleblower instead saying he was insubordinate and disrespectful.
"Dave worked hard to investigate any and every issue that came on the agenda and he did a great job," Nelson said. "But his dismissal had nothing to do with that."
"His ability to do investigative work is what kept him around not what formed the basis for his dismissal," Nelson added.
"It was personal between Dave and I. He was disrespectful to me repeatedly," Nelson said.
Nguyen declined to be interviewed.
Wood laughed when reached for comment. She said she hadn't seen the claim but disputed its general allegations, exclaiming: "get real!"
According to the county's lobbyist registry, Wood does not represent any clients connected to the projects listed by Zenger.
Bates took issue with Zenger's allegations, saying they were baseless and noting that she forwarded issues for further investigation often based on his remarks. Bates said she had the county internal auditor begin a probe on Dana Point Harbor based on issues raised by Zenger.
According to Dial’s letter to supervisors, projects investigated by Zenger that resulted in his firing include:
- The Haster Basin Park project promoted by Supervisor Nguyen.
- The acquisition of 100 acres adjacent to the Modjeska Grade Road in Bates’ district (Editors Note: The Modjeska land acquisition was located in then-Supervisor Bill Campbell’s Third District.).
- The Gobernadora Basin agreement regarding another development in Bates’ district.
- The “Lock Your Car Door” public service announcements promoted by Supervisor Nguyen.
- Change orders for the Alton Parkway Extension Project.
- The Laguna Niguel library remodeling project in Bates’ district.
- The acquisition by the county of real estate for a proposed year-round homeless shelter in Fullerton, within Nelson’s district.
- The Project Dimensions Inc. contract for Dana Point Harbor.
Zenger’s attorney proposed a settlement to the county that would require all three supervisors to issue a public letter of apology for his termination, a $100,000 payment and reinstatement as a county employee reviewing capital projects for the CEO’s office at an annual salary of $135,000. Alternatively, another option specified by the attorney would be a $1-million settlement.
Nelson often referred publicly to Zenger as the most intelligent person on his staff and directed reporters seeking information on contracts to him.
Zenger, who has extensive experience in construction contract monitoring, is intelligent, outspoken and unfiltered. He would often comment to reporters on questionable contracts without using the traditional “off-the-record” protections utilized by senior staff at public agencies.
He drew much attention after an Orange County Register story included his critical comments on a controversial and costly contract at the Social Services Agency regarding rat feces clean-up.
Zenger’s investigations also drew intense ire from Bates’ office, with many of his probes examining matters in her 5th District.
A long-held tenet at the Hall of Administration, known as district perogative, encourages county supervisors to avoid delving into issues within other county supervisors' districts.
Zenger was abruptly fired after raising concerns about the Project Dimensions contract and the Gobernadora Basin project in South County, alleging in the latter case that the county was improperly assuming responsibilities for developers and improperly waiving fees. Supervisors approved the Gobernadora project without much comment.
Bates complained bitterly to Nelson about Zenger, according to several sources. Nelson then fired Zenger during a cell phone call in April, although it took several months for it to become official.
Bates said that her concerns with Zenger were more about style than substance.
"Dave had a role in Shawn’s office as a policy advisor on issues that were in my district," Bates said adding that she didn't have a problem with Zenger looking into issues in her district. "The manner in which he conducted himself, both in the way he used profanity, the way he alleged things instead of taking them thru the proper channels, was something I thought was unprofessional," Bates said.
She acknowledged that she did raise issues about Zenger with Nelson -- mainly centering on how he interacted with her staff and that she heard him using the F-word out in the hearing chambers. Bates said she asked Nelson to handle the issue or she would report Zenger to human resources.
"Not too long after that, he was gone," Bates said.
County supervisors have been especially sensitive about corruption allegations protesting the announcement earlier this year of an FBI public corruption task force aimed at Orange County. Similar task forces exist in neighboring counties.
Supervisors also have publicly protested the announcement by the state Fair Political Practices Commission that they are conducting an investigation of all county supervisors’ campaign finances – except Supervisor Todd Spitzer's – and the CalOptima board of directors.
Earlier this year, Orange County’s grand jury, citing corruption concerns, called for the establishment of an ethics commission. That not only drew open contempt from supervisors but also triggered efforts to cut grand jury funding, which county supervisors control through the annual county budget.