Keeping Watch: County Government’s Most Thankless Job

Today, Orange County Supervisors are scheduled to have a very frank – and closed session – discussion with Performance Auditor Philip Cheng about his work.

So far, it’s been a yawner.

Since taking over as Performance Auditor, Cheng has turned over one milquetoast audit after another. His agency website is so plain that it doesn’t even list his name on the About Us page. All of the media coverage from the agency’s Media page ends in 2012.

One housing review he completed last fall made no mention of a year-long District Attorney’s Office investigation into the agency that turned over tons of information on waste and abuse. It’s a situation county supervisors found out about from the investigative reporting of Voice of OC reporter Yvette Cabrera just as they were scheduled to adopt a Cheng report that concluded the agency was smoothly meeting its marks. This past week, five workers at the agency were let go as a result of official reviews of their work performance.

All this being said, supervisors should have the frank talk with themselves.

Cheng’s milquetoast auditing is a direct result of the environment triggered by the last board majority – which penalized aggressive auditing and rewarded lapdog executives.

Despite their talk about running government like a business, these folks ran the shop with one goal: getting elected to the next higher office.

They were good at that.

We now have three State Senators – Pat Bates, Janet Nguyen and John Moorlach.

The results at the county? Not so good.

Just ask, like I did, to see the raw results of a recent employee survey of county workers. Top execs are still trying to figure out how to break the news to supervisors. They had to send supervisors an update after I sought the original records.

Know why they fear the results?

They’re miserable.

When county executives and workers were asked what they thought about the leader of Orange County, presumably the CEO, the results were a jaw-dropping 29 percent lower than the benchmark for other county governments.

Minus 29.

When asked whether the county of Orange operates with strong values and ethics, the answers from county staff were 20 percent lower than the benchmark for other county governments.

Minus 20.

This is the same CEO who county supervisors were praising last week after he abruptly announced his retirement.

Mike Giancola excelled at telling county supervisors exactly what they want to hear. He took care of their needs.

And they loved him for it.

And he did well.

Guess who didn’t do so well?

The last Performance Auditor, Steve Danley.

Danley – the only top exec to not get a raise in the past five years – was in line to be the next CEO, but couldn’t get the votes from supervisors in closed session because Bates and Nguyen were reportedly offended by the raw nature of his performance audits, which garnered top headlines for years.

His work delved into – and helped to limit – overtime pay for deputy sheriffs. He also did real investigations into the planning and human resources department, county harbor patrol and millions in no-bid IT contracts.

Raw audits expose real problems. They can hurt the brand. They force politicians to work, instead of campaign for higher office, to actually fix things.

Danley didn’t turn out too bad though, eventually getting the job of reorganizing the county Human Resources Department in the wake of the well-publicized Carlos Bustamante sex abuse scandal.

Unfortunately, Danley’s second-in-command, a well-regarded executive named Ian Rudge, never got a chance to follow his boss because he was stuck with termed-out Supervisor Moorlach when Danley left to head up HR. Moorlach refused to let Rudge return to Performance Audit because Rudge had given him a commitment to be his chief of staff.

Rudge eventually left Moorlach’s staff anyway for a job at the Probation Department.

Performance Audit was left to meander and was eventually given to Cheng, who seemingly has no idea of the political hornet’s nest he’s stepped into with a board of supervisors that is formally asking for investigations but doesn’t really want them.

Meanwhile, Danley’s new HR department ran straight into Brian Probolsky, a GOP power broker and elected official at the Moulton Niguel Water District. The trouble started when investigators started asking questions about why Probolsky didn’t take time off to head to water district meetings.

Investigators eventually got threatened with political retribution by Probolsky, but stood firm, issuing a three-day unpaid leave sanction to the political power broker – even listing his threats against them.

Yet after that, Probolsky got hired on as Chief of Staff to newly-elected Supervisor Andrew Do.

Since then, guess who has taken a really aggressive interest in the costs of Danley’s human resources consolidation?

Supervisor Andrew Do.

Orange County’s Internal Auditor Peter Hughes also has had a rocky few years since he uncovered a buried legal investigation into Bustamante, an elected member of the Santa Ana City Council and rising OC GOP Hispanic star who as a County Public Works executive was apparently habitually groping female workers at the office.

When a lawyer looked into the matter, county supervisors – including two women, Bates and Nguyen – signed off on a plan to have Bustamante quietly resign, take a 90-severance check and disappear.

After Hughes fought to have access to the same legal report as part of a hotline complaint, it ended up in an internal audit review that triggered a formal closed session and an automatic referral to District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. Bustamante’s trial is still ongoing.

After the Bustamante scandal, Hughes went looking at how then-Clerk Recorder Tom Daly managed an internal service fund inside his office called 12D. The account turned out to look much like a slush fund – the kind of fund that helps aspiring politicians like Anaheim City Councilman Jordan Brandman campaign for office while getting paid to be a “consultant” and produce reports largely lifted from Wikipedia.

Hughes produced a scathing audit that left Daly in fumes.

When Daly got to the state assembly, one of the first things he did was submit legislation to move Hughes away from the board of supervisors’ purview and back to the Auditor Controller.

That battle is still in play.

Who can blame Philipp Cheng for being milquetoast?

The last guy who pulled that off just got to play CEO for a few years.

Later this week, Supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer has convened a countywide conversation about ethics.

If supervisors want county ethics to get a better rating, than 20 points below their counterparts, they should come out publicly for strong auditing and they should promise their auditors that they wont be retaliated against for delivering bad news.

The brand can stand it.