State Watchdog Closes Probe Into Supervisors, CalOptima Board

The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission has closed a conflict-of-interest investigation it launched in 2013 into county supervisors and CalOptima board members and will take no action.

“After reviewing the minutes and meetings of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, the Enforcement Division has determined that the allegations were too vague (to) establish that you had a conflict of interest,” the commission wrote Sept. 4 to then-supervisors John Moorlach, Shawn Nelson, Bill Campbell, and Pat Bates, all Republicans.

State Sen. Janet Nguyen (R-Garden Grove), who served as both a supervisor and CalOptima board member, received a closure letter through her lawyer, Brian Hildreth.

Nelson still serves on the board.

Separately, the investigation determined there was “insufficient evidence” of conflict of interests involving the CalOptima board members because “none of the decisions reviewed during our investigation were in proceedings involving a license, permit, or other entitlement for use pending before the CalOptima Board,” a requirement for conflict-of-interest violations.

The FPPC investigation stemmed from two 2013 county grand jury reports, one titled “CalOptima Burns While Majority of Supervisors Fiddle;” and the other “A Call for Ethical Standards: Corruption in Orange County.”

The CalOptima report focused on Nguyen’s efforts to overhaul the board so it included a permanent member from the hospital industry as well as other medical professionals. The medical industry contributed significantly to her supervisorial campaigns. The grand jury also examined the actions of the Hospital Association of Southern California and two CalOptima lawyers .

The report that focused on corruption in county government called for creation of a county ethics commission.

“In a healthy ethics environment,” the grand jury wrote, “leaders are not afraid of an independent ethics program because they understand that the best measure is to do everything possible to prevent officials and employees from creating an appearance of impropriety.”

The two reports provided fodder for county political watchdog Shirley Grindle who has long advocated for a local ethics commission. On Tuesday, the supervisors will discuss a ballot proposal authored by Grindle and other good government advocates.

Moorlach described the reports as the work product of an overzealous grand jury.

“So they investigated a vague thing and said it was vague at the end of the day,” said Moorlach, who is now a state senator representing Costa Mesa. “That grand jury was certainly a low point in the history of grand juries in Orange County. So I’m glad this chapter’s closed, but there’s no surprise to the closure for me.”

CalOptima board members who received closure letters were Chairman Mark Refowitz, head of the county Health Care Agency, Vice Chairman Lee Penrose, president and ceo of St. Jude Hospital, doctors Viet Dang and Samara Cardenas, former board member Steve Knoblock, bank branch vice president Peter Agarwal, nonprofit executives Ellen Anh and Tricia Nguyen and former Social Services Agency director Michael Riley.

Supervisors are scheduled Sept. 22 to reappoint Penrose to a second four-year term on the CalOptima board.

Last year the District Attorney’s office cleared Nguyen of criminal conflict of interest charges tied to her role on the CalOptima board.

“In our review of the allegations, we concluded that no criminal conflict of interest laws were violated by Janet Nguyen in her position as a Cal Optima [sic] Board member,” declared the Feb. 4, 2014 letter to another Nguyen lawyer, Stephen Larson of Los Angeles.

Separately, FPPC has an ongoing political money laundering investigation into Nguyen’s 2012 campaign for county Supervisor. According to court documents, six of her donors admitted to being illegally reimbursed for their campaign contributions.

You can contact Tracy Wood at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.