Orange County supervisors this month are set to quietly reauthorize a $200,000 secret program, as part of the annual budget, which hires private attorneys to investigate top officials who are accused of impropriety.
So far it looks like the attorneys either clear officials or bury the inquiry.
Meet the County Cleaners.
Following the 2012 arrest of OC Public Works executive Carlos Bustamante for felony sex crimes involving his female subordinates, county supervisors reacted to reform calls by unveiling their own private investigation agency to look into – and clear up – any complaints about top executives or elected officials.
At the time, county officials were under fire because Bustamante – a rising OC GOP Hispanic star and Santa Ana City Councilman – had received special placement inside the bureaucracy and officials had largely shielded him from any discipline.
Workers had complained. HR staff, under Bustamante, had cleared him. Workers started writing to newspapers.
Meanwhile, Bustamante was allowed to quietly resign with a severance check and a confidentiality agreement by the board of supervisors after lawyers finished their own investigation.
That same investigation, when later forwarded to the DA, triggered a dozen felony sex crime charges.
Right on the heels of Bustamante, similar allegations came out against then-Clerk Recorder Tom Daly. That triggered the first hiring of private lawyers to ferret out tough allegations against top officials. They later cleared Daly just before his election to State Assembly.
The message from county supervisors at the time was that they would be transparent and respond to issues in real time, offering a more effective alternative to DA investigations, which never seem very thorough or effective and face a public lack of trust.
Instead, what we apparently got was a system that hires private attorneys whenever an issue is raised and then cloaks their entire inquiry in attorney-client privilige, while also stretching out probes.
The last time I saw a billing from the current attorney doing investigations, Debra Reilly, it was indecipherable – in terms of knowing how I as a taxpayer spent more than $100,000 on investigations since 2013.
This past week, again I asked some basic questions about how much has been spent, investigated, concluded, cleared…Still waiting.
So far the approach toward the entire program is to stall, report out nothing or when pressed, declare attorney-client.
It’s never been made clear – at least not publicly – how this triumvirate, made up of the County Internal Auditor, the County Counsel and Human Resources Director, even decides to take on an investigation or how it's handled or reported out.
Even a high level investigation involving County COO Mark Denny, already called out publicly by Supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer in January after Voice of OC raised questions, has yet to report out anything.
Spitzer gave a dramatic speech back in January about how he was going to tame this private investigation effort declaring that investigations would not just drag on.
Yet here we are in June, six months after Spitzer’s passionate plea, and nothing.
As a reminder…
The investigation’s central focus is to answer one very specific question: Who, if anyone, should be disciplined in the wake of an Internal Audit report (still kept secret) showing that Denny’s department (OC Parks) allowed nearly a million dollars in no-bid contracts to be let out for questionable consulting contracts?
The audit, which was scathing, was done last March.
Then Supervisors-Chairman Shawn Nelson ordered a probe last August after Voice of OC uncovered the audit, declaring that Orange County was a place where officials were held accountable.
Yet by January of this year, Peter Hughes – the Internal Auditor who conducted the critical audit - was raising alarm bells (against then-CEO Mike Giancola’s wishes) that the lawyers doing the so-called review hadn’t even contacted him or gotten documents.
After our story, Spitzer – the new chairman at the time - ordered another very public review.
Now it’s June.
Now it’s clear that new CEO Frank Kim, a strong numbers guy, could use a guy like Denny – a former chief of staff to Supervisors’ Chairman Bill Campbell - for his political acumen.
What’s complicating things here, I suspect, is that Denny (who is smart) didn’t just lose track of this questionable consultant’s contracts. He was told to place this guy.
That’s how this system works, despite what supervisors tell you about their vaunted system of RFPs (Requests for Proposals). They don’t talk about no-bid contracts, change orders, chopping big contracts into smaller ones so no one notices them.
Given that reality, they can’t flush Denny for playing along.
It will be interesting to see how Kim, also known for strong ethics, handles this situation.
In the meantime, it appears we have a new bureaucratic office to fund dear taxpayers, to the tune of $200,000 annually and counting…all thanks to the board of supervisors and their need to show you how transparent they are.
It reminds me how after the death of John Chamberlain in the Orange County Jail in 2007, county supervisors set up the Office of Independent Review (again to show how transparent they are) and allowed people, even some officials, to think they had set up a civilian review commission.
Yet that’s not what OIR is set up to do.
Nonetheless, that office – which does provide a meaningful service – now costs taxpayers about a half million each year.
So move over County Clerk Recorder, Auditor-Controller, Sheriff, DA, OIR, our conservative all-Republican county supervisors have yet again created a new countywide post.
Again, to show us how transparent they are.
Meet the County Cleaner.