This tumultuous year has proven the essential nature of nonpartisan local news. Every day we bring you news critical to staying informed and active in the community. Join us with a tax-deductible donation.
Orange County officials have engaged a private attorney to review the actions of Chief Operating Officer Mark Denny and other top officials to propose potential disciplinary measures following a scathing internal audit report that revealed nearly a million dollars in questionable, no-bid consulting contracts for professional services at OC Parks while Denny was agency director.
The review, by the firm of Reilly & Associates, comes just as Denny is poised to take over the reigns as CEO with the county’s current chief executive, Mike Giancola, slated to go out on medical leave in January.
(Click here to view the firm’s contract with the county.)
It’s the second, known, ongoing probe of a top county official with Brian Probolsky –a top aide to supervisors and elected member of the Moulton Niguel Water District – still under review by internal human resources investigators for taking time off at his county job with Orange County Community Resources to attend water district meetings, but failing to record the time-off on his time sheets.
Voice of OC revealed an internal HR review of Probolsky’s time cards over the past year showing numerous instances – virtually every month – where he attended water district subcommittee meetings in the morning on county time but didn’t document any time off.
His timecards also show that much of his workday is charged off to accounts that may be funded through state and federal funds for programs such as homelessness, community block grant funding, libraries, parks and veterans affairs.
Probolsky has reportedly pushed back against investigators since his summer transfer from OCCR into the office of County Supervisor Pat Bates, who hired him in the midst of the internal probe to head up the waning months of her term as supervisor.
Probolsky is now on the staff of County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who was sworn into office earlier this month, just after Bates left for a state senate seat.
Both Probolsky and Bartlett have declined comment.
The situation involving Denny started with an anonymous phone call to a county human resources manager back in March about more than $900,000 in questionable consulting contracts with BPM Advisors in the county parks department.
Just like the ongoing criminal case of former OC Public Works executive Carlos Bustamante – accused of a dozen felony sex crimes – an internal investigation cleared official actions. In this case more than a dozen contract authorizations intentionally split up to avoid board of supervisors’ public review and ultimately reaching nearly reached a million dollars over five years.
OC Community Resources Director Steve Franks, who supervises OC Parks, was credited for alerting the county Internal Audit department about the matter. But Franks also was criticized for having OC Parks Director Stacy Blackwood review the actions of her bosses (she concluded they were acceptable) before he reported it to Internal Audit.
From 2009 until 2014, OC Parks officials authorized 13 consecutive consulting contracts totaling $913,095 to BPM Advisors, which is owned by Ahmad Iqbal, a grad school friend of former OC Parks Deputy Director Michael Brajdic.
Both Brajdic and Iqbal refused to be interviewed by auditors.
In all, four OC Parks officials, including then-Director Denny, had a hand in approving the contracts, which were all for amounts under the $100,000 threshold for requiring a vote by the supervisors, according to an Aug. 13 report from the county’s Internal Audit Department to County Counsel Nicholas Chrisos obtained by Voice of OC.
The county paid 74 invoices totaling $642,696 to Iqbal’s BPM Advisors, which auditors describe as a “one man vendor,” before cutting off payments in May. And while auditors stated that they didn’t review the actual work performed, they concluded it would be hard for anyone outside of OC Parks to justify those payouts.
“There was no indication that either BPM or OC Parks prepared any detailed time estimates or associated budgets for any of the stated deliverables or elements identified in the contracts’ scopes of work as a basis for setting the contract award amounts,” internal auditors wrote in a 23-page report.
Both Giancola and Denny declined requests from Voice of OC for interviews about the audit report.
“I’m not amused by what we found,” said County Supervisor John Moorlach about the audit back in September, highlighting the upside that a district attorney review didn’t find any criminal activity.
County Supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson ordered the county human resources department to review the matter on Aug. 28.
Yet given that the audit pointed to questionable contracts at OC Parks while Denny was in charge, the matter was referred to outside attorneys to review to propose disciplinary measures.
Those kinds of referrals have mounted in recent years as the county government has been rocked by scandal after scandal.
In 2012, Bustamante, who was also a Santa Ana city councilman, was charged with a dozen felony sex crimes involving his female subordinates. Given that an internal HR probe initially cleared Bustamante, officials have began referring out investigations involving top executives and elected officials ever since.
“Consistent with our established process, please be assured that the above referenced issue will be referred to an independent outside investigator,” wrote County CEO Mike Giancola to county supervisors on Sept. 5. – a day after a Voice of OC story reported Nelson’s communications to Giancola asking for a review.
“As always, any and all findings will be appropriately addressed per county policy and best practice,” wrote Giancola in an email to county supervisors obtained by Voice of OC.
County Human Resources Director Steve Danley wrote back to Giancola the same day noting that “I was going to email you today and recommend the same thing: that we use outside investigator for personnel review of Iqbal case. Now I will proceed to hire an attorney from our established list.”
Danley noted, “per County policy, we automatically use outside investigators for investigations that involve Executive Managers for EEO cases only. In non-EEO cases, such as the Iqbal contract case, we have option to use either outside investigators or do in-house with HRS staff.”
During approval of the umbrella agreement with law firms to investigate top officials,County Supervisor Todd Spitzer insisted that that bar for the hiring of outside lawyers be set very high.
Reilly & Associates was formally hired on Oct. 1, 2014 to review the matter and suggest what disciplinary measures should be taken. The firm is one of several law firms hired to conduct personnel investigations of top officials. County Counsel Wanda Florence is supervising the work of the firm.
According to county records, since January 2013, the firm has been paid $108, 465.32.