A long running argument between unofficial campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle and Orange County supervisors over how to enforce ethics in local politics has erupted again, with Grindle urging voters in November to reject the supervisors’ plan for the state to take on the responsibility.
The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission or FPPC only would conduct random checks, she said in an interview with Voice of OC Monday, and wouldn’t expend the voluminous time it takes to monitor all contributions, as Grindle does now.
Grindle said she is calling on county voters to turn down the supervisors’ FPPC proposal, which will be up for approval on the November ballot. Instead, she said, if voters will wait until 2016, she and other supporters of an independent ethics commission hope to put that plan on the ballot.
An independent ethics commission, she said, could have staffers take over from Grindle and monitor all campaign contributions for violations of state laws.
The FPPC “will miss most of the violations, and that is unfair to the people who abide by the rules,” she said.
For years, Grindle has tried to convince supervisors the county needs an independent ethics commission to review complaints about wrongdoing, ranging from campaign finance law violations to abuse of power within the sprawling county bureaucracy.
Although Grindle isn’t alone – three separate grand juries in recent years have recommended an ethics commission -- she’s been consistently rebuffed by supervisors, who dismiss the idea as costly and potentially compromised by political biases.
But the issue took on renewed urgency in 2013 after that grand jury issued a report that alleged a “culture of corruption” in county government.
A year earlier, Public Works executive Carlos Bustamante was indicted and is awaiting trial on felony charges he sexually assaulted several female employees.
In the fallout of Bustamante’s arrest, a picture emerged of a county system open to political pressure and absent effective checks on management. Employees and managers alike described highly politicized hires, and Bustamante, a one-time rising Republican star, was said to be accountable to no one because of his powerful connections.
In response to mounting pressure and grand jury reports, supervisors opted for a November ballot measure, approved July 15, that would have the FPPC regulate and enforce the local campaign finance law.
The supervisors' proposal got a crucial assist from Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), a potential candidate for mayor of Santa Ana in November, with his sponsorship of legislation to allow the FPPC to enforce Orange County's local law.
Union officials are critical of both Correa and supervisors for attempting to defuse support for an independent ethics commission.
"They are trying to use legislation and other politicians to deprive the citizens of Orange County an opportunity to have an ethics commission as called out by so many grand juries," said Orange County Employees Association General Manager Nick Berardino.
Correa said he supports the FPPC initiative, stressing that the agency is very effective and doesn't politicize investigations . "Nobody in Sacramento thinks the FPPC is a pushover," Correa said.
“It’s a better solution than nothing,” supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson told Grindle from the dais at the board meeting. “And absent you, we’ve got nothing.”
Grindle – one of the authors of the ballot argument being submitted Tuesday against FPPC enforcement -- disagrees.
But in addition to sparse FPPC enforcement, Grindle says supervisors are using the ballot measure sidestep the real issue.
“[Supervisors] have all kinds of crazy, stupid reasons,” Grindle said. “They just don’t want it.”
Nelson and Supervisor Todd Spitzer, the most vocal county leaders at the July 15 board meeting, didn’t return phone calls for comment. But Nelson during the meeting questioned how the commissioners to an ethics panel would be appointed.
“Everybody would have a bias. That’s the problem. There’s no perfect solution,” Nelson said, adding that the FPPC “sure as heck” isn’t stacked with the county’s “political cronies.”
But Grindle says the supervisors’ plan is woefully inadequate. Spitzer acknowledged that with Grindle’s public credibility and stated opposition, the measure faces an “uphill climb.”
Grindle, a citizen volunteer who wrote the county campaign finance law, Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics (TINCUP), has been monitoring contributions since 1978, calling on politicians to return money when they’ve taken donations over the limit.
To do the painstaking work, Grindle keeps thousands of index cards and stacks of filing cabinets at her Orange home. She has to add up contributions for candidates over an election cycle – the four-year window in which the limits apply – to calculate whether a violation has occurred.
But Grindle turns 80 years-old in December, and she’s planning for the eventual passing of the torch.
“I won’t be around forever,” she said.
To that end, she and others are no longer willing to leave the question of an ethics commission up to county leaders.
She said she’s already authored the planned 2016 ballot initiative, which as written now would have the commission investigate only campaign finance violations. But she says the responsibilities could be easily expanded.
“On the horizon is an initiative to get an ethics commission… and I guarantee you it will be a lot tougher than the one I proposed six years ago,” Grindle said. “If I were [the supervisors] I would cooperate right now.”
Voice of OC reporter Nick Gerda contributed to this story.