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.

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  • John Claxton

    Will this commission have oversight we will this commission have oversight over HR? For example when a political appointee (let’s use the DA’s wife Peggi Buff as an example because it’s a great example) gets hired into a regular county job making $100k per year, against all HR rules and with absolutely no qualifications? She is doing clerical work where everyone else is doing the same job for $20 per hour. Oh and the job was not advertised and no one else was allowed to apply. This happens all the time!

  • John Claxton

    Chairman Spitzer, if you would like the opportunity to write a wrong with no jail time, I know 3 commentors on this story that would love for you to do just that! You yourself were wrongfully terminated from the DA’s office. Name one thing you have done as a supervisor to right that wrong?

  • Lyanna Lyns

    There is no “widespread frustration”. There is fury, and anger, and rage. And Todd Spitzer has some nerve, grandstanding and pretending to give a rat’s a@@ in the view of the news outlets. Funny, but the man does not show that same concern if an actual employee comes to him, seeking his help, trying to give him actual evidence. But, then, that is what he has his Chief of Staff and all those highly paid assistants for, right? They keep the mud off his glass slippers, and he still smiles and pretends to care, for public consumption. What a crock. There are dozens of employees who have sought his help for ethical, even criminal, violations, and Sweet Toddy has ignored them all. Harry Houdini used to convince audiences that he could make an elephant disappear. Diversion. You look at the show over here, and they bury the truth over there. And VoC is the worst of all, because they never push harder. Idiots…this county deserves the filth it gets.

  • Steve W.

    If there is “widespread frustration” felt by “many,” then why were there only 25 people at this conference, most of whom probably weren’t even regular citizens? The actual attendance undercuts the sweeping but unsupported assertion in Gerda’s lede.

    • Lyanna Lyns

      Because they did not make it known to the rank and file. Otherwise, it would have had more, though many would have stayed away from fear.

      • Steve W.

        What “rank and file”? I was talking about OC citizens.

        • Lyanna Lyns

          OC employees are also citizens, and I can tell you, from the front lines, they did not make this know to any of us. If the employees don’t know, do you think the citizens do?

    • John Claxton

      I think if more people knew about it, attendance would have been higher.

      • Kathleen Tahilramani

        Excellent point. You can control 25 people……(most of whom were “invited” and can be trusted to nod up and down and behave. No publicity for a reason. Cowards.

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  • Kathleen Tahilramani

    The BOS can create all the commissions, oversight committees, workshops blah blah they want for forever and a day. It will make no difference, they will find a way to circumvent any and all process or find a person to do it for them that will take the fall. This is window dressing and political grandstanding. There is no true interest or motivation to fix the existing corrupt system – it simply works very well for the corrupt who take advantage of it on a regular basis. They will put out a small fix here and there to give the appearance of caring- but they don’t and they never will.

    • Lyanna Lyns

      And they will terrorize, abuse and harass any ethical employee who fights back. Of course, there has been no support from any of the stunning “trailblazers” who got paid off and left the fight to those still in the trenches. If everyone past and present banded together and told the whole story, then the single person fighting alone might not feel so alone. But I suppose the view in the cheap seats is pretty sweet, sitting on cushy payouts and ignoring those left behind.

      • Kathleen Tahilramani

        So true – having been one of the ones who stood up and refused to follow unethical orders – I can tell you first hand you will have your career destroyed, you will NOT be assisted by DFEH, EEOC, the Affirmative Action Office Human Resources, the unions will only go so far and then step aside for their own protection, The county will manipulate, twist and fabricate, promote (as a reward and incentive) those whom they want to tell a story to contradict yours, they will delay, run up costs and play whatever dirty card is necessary to get their way. It matters not if they are wrong. The objective is to destroy anyone who refuses compromise their reputation and integrity And everyone watching from the sidelines learns what happens to anyone who refuses to do what they know for an absolute fact is wrong.

        • Lyanna Lyns

          I know it, first hand. There is only power in numbers. If the people, particularly the women, of the County got together and they filed class action, they might get change. Maybe not.

          • Kathleen Tahilramani

            They all had a chance with my case. I felt like the lone ranger. The essence of the problem is too many people have quite a bit to lose – jobs, medical insurance & the inevitable predictable blackballing. I was able to tell them all to shove it – but then I had 31 one years and a retirement, so the thugs were not a threat to me. So I have my doubts about any substantive changes. Toddy does make me laugh at his pretentious grandstanding what a fake piece of work.

          • Lyanna Lyns

            It does make a person lie awake at night, terrified. You can have boxes of documents, proof and all of the best intentions. But they will do everything they can to humiliate you, and to destroy your reputation. You work and train, you get an education. You give everything you have, and then, by some sick twist of fate, you find yourself in the center of a hurricane that never seems to end. There are no friends, then, because you will watch good people that you thought were friends turn away, because they are afraid of losing all that they have built. You can’t blame them, for their cowardice. Truth is, you wish, over and over, that you never saw what you saw or heard what you heard. You wish you didn’t have boxes of documents or discs, because even though YOU know the truth, they are able to spin it, and make you look like a fool, so much so that you start to doubt yourself. Then you find yourself on that ledge, and all the crap is past, and you have to choose whether to throw away everything you worked for, or keep your mouth shut and throw away everything you believe in. In the end, it won’t matter which way you go, because they cannot let you stand, not with all you know and have. They have to tear you down and leave you with nothing. They cannot risk you being able to grow strong again, and come back on them.

            At least…that is what I hear….

          • Kathleen Tahilramani

            You sum it up artfully, Sadly, that is pretty much how it plays out each and every time. Once and a while a individual with self respect and the ability to challenge them will take them on – but the outcome is always the same – you will be the “disgruntled employee”, clueless, someone who does not get it. But, at the end of the day the rebellion is worth it – they will never own me – they know the truth and I know the truth.

          • Guest

            I am there, now. I do not know what to do. But I do have enough documentation to bury them.

          • Kathleen Tahilramani

            Be very careful – consider getting good legal advice.

          • John Claxton

            Documentation or any evidence will not do any good against the county in an Orange County Superior Courtroom. The county pays part of their salary and a seperate healthcare insurance so they pay nothing. It’s the County’s blackmail piece against these judges and it quite effective. File a civil suit in Federal court or get a change of venue to another county.

  • David Zenger

    “Ethics rules” is something of a contradiction in terms. What they are really talking about is a political campaign watch dog – and that has ZERO to do with ethics in government.

    Directing funds to friends, chummy lobbyists, relatives of political allies – all legal and all unethical.

    Paying unnecessary amount on construction change orders to politically connected contractors? Legal and unethical.

    Applying the screws to County vendors and consultants to contribute to Supervisor’s political campaign? (Marginally) legal and SOP in Building 10.

    Building an empty $200,000,000 “transit” center based on ridiculous ridership numbers – legal and unethical.

    Giving the Angels a three-year opt out extension and getting nothing in return? Legal and unethical.

    Wasting $3,000,000 of County general property tax park funds to build a couple of soccer fields for the City of Garden Grove? Legal and unethical.

    Assumption by the County of an obligation agreed to by a massive land developer? Legal and unethical.

    Creating a ridiculous six-figure managerial job for a political crony and going through the motions of a real job recruitment? Legal and unethical.

    Paying out a monthly $50,000 “fixed fee” for five years to a supervisorial campaign contributor for five years? Legal and unethical.

    None of this would be addressed by the current convenient definition of ethics. See the problem?

    • Steve W.

      Part of the problem seems to be your less than firm grasp of the meaning of “unethical.”

      • David Zenger

        You seem to be quite confused, “Steve,” about the difference between what you can legally get away with and what is ethically wrong.

        That is very telling. But not at all surprising.

        • Steve W.

          I understand the difference, “David.” But you conflate “unethical” with things you happen to disagree with. Building a park is “unethical”? Overly-dramatic, much?

          • David Zenger

            Sorry “Steve W(ho for some reason won’t share his real name)” but you display your ignorance or your disingenuity.

            The soccer fields at Haster Basin are a total waste of our County-wide property tax money used to glorify Nguyen in violation of County policy that doesn’t build “neighborhood parks” (directly from Mark Denny – take it up with him), and knowing full well that Garden Grove wasn’t going to take care of it despite assurances by Steve Franks to the Supervisors that this was the case.

            In the meantime a unique passive park was ruined forever and $3,000,000 spent burying a flood control facility for no reason other than deliver some “apparent” pork” by Nguyen.

            Yes, I’d call that unethical. And perfectly legal.