This year Orange County supervisors have systematically gutted a stunning array of auditing and accountability functions inside the county government.
Earlier this month, the county’s Human Resources Director abruptly retired in protest.
Politicos are tightening their grip on county government.
And taxpayers should be asking some hard questions.
Lets not forget that Orange County supervisors are the folks that pioneered municipal bankruptcy in 1994. And when they went to refinance their bankruptcy debt in 2006, they quietly triggered another funding crisis, losing hundreds of millions in property tax revenues to Sacramento.
With all this recent executive turmoil, CEO Frank Kim may now be presiding over one of the least accountable county governments in California, choc full of political appointee-types, with little to no checks or balances left and facing a real decay in the civil service.
Note that a recent county employee satisfaction survey was so dismal compared to other counties that it spurred the exit of the last CEO, Mike Giancola – a former trash department executive who got the job in large part because he always played nice helping to transfer supervisors' board aides into good government jobs.
Last week, Orange County Human Resources Director Steve Danley abruptly announced his retirement – failing to give his bosses of more than three decades even two weeks notice.
No party. No proclamation. No group-hug photo.
Just a big middle finger…
Danley – whose exceptional work as County Performance Audit Director easily cost him the CEO job and a hefty raise -- left so abruptly that county supervisors couldn’t even convene in open session before he left, something I’ve never seen a top-tier executive team member do.
He wouldn’t comment to me but according to sources, Danley’s been under intense pressure from county supervisors for requiring their political aides to actually compete for county jobs and also follow civil service selection rules when they transfer from supervisors’ offices to county jobs – as most do.
Danley also has been under fire from County Supervisor Andrew Do’s office because his investigators took aim at Do Chief of Staff Brian Probolsky last year, when Probolsky was a senior staffer at the OC Community Resources and took time off for his elected duties at the Moulton Niguel Water District without documenting it on timecards, despite County Counsel direction to do so.
Probolsky ultimately got a three-day work suspension he’s been fighting ever since, as well as directing some hardcore fire back on Danley.
He apparently won that pressure play and got the best of the HR Director, who cracked.
Danley was reportedly so dejected that he couldn’t stomach going through the bullshit parade that was rolled out earlier this year when his longtime buddy, Giancola decided to hang it up after one of the shortest terms as CEO.
His abrupt departure from Human Resources comes just as county supervisors allow State Assemblyman Tom Daly to finish driving an artful political dagger into Internal Auditor Peter Hughes – eviscerating Hughes' office after Internal Audit delivered a scathing audit of Daly’s handling of a special fund called 12D as County Clerk Recorder.
Even though Daly’s legislation isn’t even final, county supervisors reversed a key reform of the OC bankruptcy in 1994 by returning the internal audit team back to the Auditor Controller – the same office that was soundly criticized for not sounding enough alarm bells on risky investments by former Treasurer Robert Citron.
Add a Daly win against another auditor, Hughes.
Keep in mind that Hughes’ team has been through a series of tough audits in recent years that have shown some ugly fraud, waste and abuse at the county.
Bad audits are bad for the brand.
That’s the private warning Hughes was reportedly given last year after he came out with a scathing audit of a million dollar contracts scandal inside the OC Parks Department that county supervisors to this day have never addressed in public.
That audit is still hidden by county counsel, now ironically tasked with monitoring the county fraud hotline since Hughes’ office was transferred against his wishes to County Auditor Controller Eric Woolery.
And what happened to the county executive – and former chief of staff to a county supervisor - who led the parks department during that scandal?
Meet County Operating Officer Mark Denny, formerly chief of staff for Republican Supervisor Bill Campbell.
Hughes also was the auditor that unearthed all the dirty laundry from Carlos Bustamante’s mass affairs with underlings at the OC Public Works Department. Bustamante, a Santa Ana councilman and rising GOP star at the time was considered untouchable in county circles until Hughes’ audit came to light in 2012.
Bustamante’s trial is still pending but the ensuing scandal fried then-CEO Tom Mauk in the OC as he and a few select top executives were let go by supervisors.
It’s been more than a year since that critical parks audit – which has still been kept secret despite any criminal charges against anyone involved – was finished.
No action, nor even public discussion by supervisors.
Supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer told me at one point that his understanding – communicated by former CEO Giancola – was that Denny had been dealt with but there’s no way to know because it’s a personnel matter and confidential.
My information is that Spitzer was lied to.
Denny has certainly never been subjected to any kind of public oversight or private censure for what happened inside his agency.
And that’s where it stands.
This board of supervisors isn’t interested in digging deeper, especially when it comes to politically-connected aides.
Meanwhile, an entire HR department that was just centralized (at a premium cost to taxpayers) is missing a top exec.
No idea where that department goes next or who takes over.
Danley’s old job of Performance Auditor – set up to root out bad management practices – also remains vacant.
The last auditor, Philip Cheng, was fired after a series of tame audits embarrassed supervisors publicly because his audits seemed to studiously avoided any hint of controversy.
No one has stepped up yet to take that job.
Today, supervisors are reportedly trying to get Hughes to take that job so it doesn’t look like they totally abandoned an auditor who took on politically tough audits.
Hughes reportedly is pushing for a better salary, probably trying to pad his retirement as he nears the end of his career. Supervisors are expected to take up Hughes’ contract demands this upcoming Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Hughes’ entire Internal Audit department has now been shifted to Auditor Controller Eric Woolery – who is reportedly out on some sort of quiet medical leave for six weeks.
So we now prepare to enter an election year with virtually no independent-minded auditing for a $6 billion county bureaucracy.
The HR Director is out after standing up to a political aide and losing.
The Internal Auditor is out after standing up an elected department head, who moved up the food chain to the state assembly and crafted legislation to kill his whole department - successfully.
The Performance Audit department remains without a leader because the last auditor (Danley) was too aggressive and his successor (Cheng) too timid.
Throw into the mix the fact that county supervisors at one point this year voted to de-fund the Office of Independent Review at the Sheriff’s Department, only changing course after being pressed publicly by Sheriff Sandra Hutchens during final budget adoption this past June. Today, supervisors are meeting to consider several short-term contracts to study alternatives to OIR.
And if that irony isn’t rich enough for you, consider that county supervisors are now convening a special study group to consider whether to implement a county ethics commission – now a reality because of the real threat of a citizen’s ballot initiative to establish one.
And guess who is studying whether more political accountability is needed?
The WD-40 of County Government: Supervisors’ executive aides.
Representing the First District is HR-Director Killer Brian Probolsky.
Next batter-up is Supervisor Shawn Nelson’s Chief of Staff Dennis Bilodeau, another aide famous for keeping crappy attendance records as an elected official at his elected water district gig.
Third up representing Supervisor Todd Spitzer is Chris Nguyen, whose political consulting firm was investigated for their role in a botched ballot forgery attempt out in Stanton during last November’s election over a public safety tax initiative.
And batting clean up is Orange County’s senior trench-fighting politico, former Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Waters, who now works for Supervisor Lisa Bartlett after being cut from Santa Ana as city manager by a new city council majority after decades in office working with one of Orange County’s most ethically-challenged elected officials, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido.
And guess what?
During the panel’s first meeting last week (of course not televised for public review), the ethics commission study group didn’t express much support for outside accountability agencies.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that county supervisors had defunded the Office of Independent Review.