County Auditor Controller Jan Grimes is withholding payment to a campaign consultant with close ties to County Supervisor Todd Spitzer – hired under questionable circumstances earlier this year to spearhead a $25,000 public relations blitz in April for the unveiling of a Victims Memorial.
Supervisors’ penchant for using county agencies for their own political purposes has created friction within the county bureaucracy for years. County human resources in 2013 had to establish a policy to stop questionable transfers of political aides into county agencies.
Supervisor Janet Nguyen came under fire in 2012 for her coordination with county agencies – such as Social Services and the Sheriff’s Department – on events in the First District with reports that signage at such events didn’t highlight the agency but instead touted Nguyen.
Supervisor Pat Bates also came under fire for questionable staff transfers from her office into the county bureaucracy as well as efforts by her office to influence enforcement of the county’s sex offender park ban near Dana Point Harbor.
Spitzer, who as both a private attorney and public official is a passionate defender of victims’ rights within the criminal justice system, last year got his board colleagues to back the establishment of a victims memorial monument at Mason Regional Park saying that it would be completely supported by private fundraising.
A staff report for the item in April 2013 noted that there would be no financial impact from the memorial construction. According to the report, even staff time to organize the event would be “minor,” mainly depending on OC Parks and Spitzer’s staff to get announcements out and process design applications.
That didn’t’ turn out to be the case.
Spitzer said that OC Parks’ staffers were incapable of responding to the challenges of the competition because of an overwhelming international response to calls for a design.
“Did I want it to be a beautiful event? Absolutely,” Spitzer said. “Because I needed to drum up public support.”
When OC Parks staff asked him for a recommendation on a consultant to help, Spitzer said he suggested the firm, Communications Lab – run by Arianna Barrios who as a campaign consultant heads up Spitzer’s social media efforts.
Billing records reviewed by Voice of OC show that the PR consultants worked with Spitzer on talking points for his speech, sent out thank you cards, and coordinated with his staff on video editing for the event.
Ironically, Barrios would later be submitting her invoices to the county just as County Procurement Officer Rob Richardson was sending out a warning to all purchasing agents that the board of supervisors’ subcommittee led by Spitzer and Supervisor Janet Nguyen called for reforms on how such contracts are let out.
Richardson specifically pointed out one central tenet of the new policies.
“When an individual Board of Supervisors member makes a request on behalf of themselves or a department for a service contract, this service contract must be agendized and approved by the Board of Supervisors,” Richardson wrote in a June 26 memo obtained by Voice of OC.
That memo came less than a week after the Barrios invoice arrived.
Grimes did not return a call and email seeking comment about why she refused to pay Barrios’ June 20, 2014 invoice for $24, 941.42.
OC Parks Director Stacy Blackwood also didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Spitzer said he understood why Grimes held up payment and is moving to rectify the situation.
“When the auditor controller matched up the ASR (Agenda Staff Report) with the invoice they said there wasn’t authority to pay it,” Spitzer said. “So I went back at looked at the ASR and agreed with the analysis of the Auditor Controller.”
During an interview late Tuesday, Spitzer said, “because I had money left over in my budget, I decided to pay for it.”
Yet given the questions about how the contract was initiated, Spitzer on Wednesday said he would be bringing the contract back to the full board of supervisors so that any action would be taken in public.
“There’s no nefarious intent here,” Spitzer said. “I’ll just take it back to the board and explain what happened and see if the board approves.”
Spitzer also disclosed that Communications Lab – on a quarterly retainer to Spitzer’s campaign – also has public relations contracts at two agencies he sits on the board of, including the Orange County Fire Authority and the Toll Roads Agency. He noted that the toll road agency contract preceded his service on that board.
“They are a prominent firm in Orange County,” Spitzer said.