OC’s Political Ethics Enforcement (or lack thereof) Subject of Forum

Amid widespread frustration over what many say is lax enforcement of local campaign finance limits by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, Orange County officials and residents gathered Wednesday to talk about how to better police the county’s political scofflaws.

The meeting, convened by county Board of Supervisors Chairman Todd Spitzer at Cal-State Fullerton, drew about 25 people, including officials from the DA’s office, the Fair Political Practices Commission and Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, as well as citizen activists.

Much of the discussion centered on efforts to create an independent ethics enforcement agency in Orange County, and lessons that could be drawn from LA’s experience.

Additionally, local campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle used the occasion to announce her intent to circumvent the county Board of Supervisors and gather signatures for an ethics initiative that would go an upcoming ballot.

County supervisors have twice rejected grand jury recommendations to create an ethics commission.

In November, county voters showed an appetite for an ethics commission by approving a ballot measure described as authorizing an ethics commission to enforce campaign finance rules.

But the measure didn’t create a commission. Rather, it opened up the ability for an agency other than Rackauckas’ to enforce the existing campaign finance limits.

There was much discussion around LA’s ethics commission, which has a $2.8 million budget and a vigorous mandate to enforce not only campaign finance limits but also issues like conflicts of interest, financial disclosures, officials’ outside employment, gift limits and lobbying restrictions.

The commission also enforces city regulations requiring disclosures of responsible parties for political ads on the ads themselves. Campaigns have to file copies of their ads with the commission, along with recordings of TV or radio ads, which are then posted on the commission’s website.

And the commission scrubs through job descriptions of city employees to make sure those who should be filing financial disclosures, known as Form 700s, required by the state Political Reform Act, actually file them.

This has been a particularly controversial subject here in recent weeks following revelations that Rackauckas’ chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder, does not file a Form 700.

Enforcement of ethics rules is key to getting compliance, along with outreach and education so officials and candidates know the rules, said the commission’s executive director, Heather Holt said.

“Prosecution has to be part of the formula,” said Holt, who pointed to five potential fines totaling $120,000 that the LA commission will vote on next week.

In contrast, Grindle talked about years of fruitless efforts by herself and others to get Rackauckas to prosecute violations of the local campaign finance limits law.

“I have not been very happy with the enforcement of the county’s campaign ordinance, TINCUP, by our district attorney,” Grindle told attendees, as she unveiled her latest proposal. “I’m tired of relying on county employees investigating other county employees. That needs to stop.”

The proposed commission would enforce not only campaign finance limits for countywide offices, but also receipt of gifts and unethical conduct by managers and employees, according to its co-author, Chapman University law professor Mario Mainero, who formerly served as Supervisor John Moorlach’s chief of staff.

It would also receive tips regarding ethics issues through a hotline.

To get politics out of the process, Mainero said, a panel of former grand jury members would screen and recommend potential commissioners, who would then be chosen by former grand jury forepersons.

“The district attorney is an elected official, and the only person who has actively sought enforcement” is Grindle, Mainero said. “Her Herculean efforts [to enforce the law] cannot continue forever.”

(Click here to read the proposed ethics commission ordinance.)

The measure drew pushback from an attorney who represents political campaigns.

“What is the incentive for creating another county agency, this commission, to do something?” asked attorney Darryl Wold.

The grand jury report “is replete with examples” for why they want the agency, but each example was something that was prosecuted by the DA or another enforcement agency, he added.

“That was the only basis that the grand jury had for advocating some kind of ethics agency.  Well it falls under its own weight,” said Wold.

A supporter of the commission proposal, Bill Mitchell, responded that he needed to look no further than the corruption case of former Sheriff Mike Corona to show the need for an ethics infrastructure.

“One of the less positive attributes is we’re the only county in the state of California that has its former sheriff in jail,” and the reason he’s in jail is because the DA “ignored” breadcrumbs, said Mitchell, an attorney and former chair of the government accountability nonprofit Orange County Common Cause.

“We have a political culture that has, for whatever reason…incentivized good people to engage” in indiscretions, he added.

Spitzer, meanwhile, asked a series of questions about the proposal, and emphasized the importance of keeping the existence of ongoing investigations confidential, along with the ability for innocent mistakes to be corrected without criminal charges.

“I return the money” when Grindle correctly identifies contributions over the limit, Spitzer said. “That’s the way I think the system should work.”

Supporters face an uphill battle in getting the commission measure on the ballot.

To qualify for the Nov. 2016 election, just over 62,000 valid signatures from registered Orange County voters must be collected and verified.  Grindle estimated the effort would cost $200,000.

The DA’s representative at the meeting took issue with characterizations that his office is soft on the campaign finance limits.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Mark Sacks pointed out that the DA did require former Anaheim Councilman Harry Sidhu to return $1,700 in illegal contributions.

“The money was forfeited.  That is enforcement,” said Sacks.

Grindle shot back that it’s the first and only enforcement she knows of.

“He is very reluctant to go after other Republican elected officials,” Grindle said of Rackauckas. “I think it’s time that we have an independent commission that takes that burden off of his shoulders.”

An audience member asked Sacks how many campaign finance violation complaints the DA’s office has received and the number it’s enforced. Sacks said he didn’t know off the top of his head, but that the info should be available through a Public Records Act request.

Spitzer encouraged the DA’s office make that information available publicly.

“I think we’re all gonna want that data,” said Spitzer.

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.