Whitney Secor Ayers, the new Orange County vice president of the Hospital Association of Southern California (HASC) has been warned twice this year about violating the county’s ex-employee ethics policy on lobbying, according to interviews and emails obtained by Voice of OC.

“I had a conversation with (county) counsel and counsel reminded her” that county workers couldn’t discuss lobbying issues with Ayers for a year after she left her county job, said Mark Refowitz, director of the county’s Health Care Agency.

Ayers , who worked as an administrator in Refowitz’s office at the county Health Care Agency, left in January to join HASC,

Emails obtained through the California Public Records Act show Assistant County Counsel James Harman twice warned Ayers since June about breaching the county’s 22-year-old “revolving door” ethics policy.

The policy prohibits county employees from meeting or talking to a former county elected official or employee “who is acting as a lobbyist” for a year after the former worker leaves the county. The goal is to protect workers and taxpayer money from undue influence by a former insider.

“I continue to believe what I wrote to you on June 30, 2015, which was that I concur with Mr. Refowitz that ‘all matters wherein it could conceivably be interpreted that HASC may be considered ‘lobbying’ County officials or employees, should be addressed to the County by those at HASC who have not been employed by the County of Orange within the past year,’” Harman wrote August 11 in his second warning to Ayers.

Ayers told a Voice of OC reporter “I’m not authorized to speak” about the lobbying ethics issue. HASC executives at the trade association’s Los Angeles headquarters didn’t return calls seeking comment.

But the emails indicate Ayers had difficulty understanding the overall philosophy behind the ethics policy and focused instead on specific bits of conversation or portions of issues.

For example, in an email to Harman Aug. 11, Ayers said she was “struggling here to understand the application of the one-year ban with respect to contract renewals.” Later in the same email she noted “this will all be over January…”

There is no penalty for the lobbyist for violating the county ethics code. The responsibility rests with county employees to avoid being lobbied.

According to the Board of Supervisors Code of Ethics and Commitment to County Public Service, the “county officials and employees are agents of the public and serve for the benefit of the public. (…) County public officials and employees must demonstrate the highest standards of morality and ethics consistent with the requirements of their position and consistent with law.”

To avoid putting county workers in a position where they might violate the ethics policy, Harman advised Ayers to have HASC workers who hadn’t been employed by the county deal with county employees on anything that might be considered lobbying.

It’s unclear why Ayers had a problem adhering to the rules because her predecessor, Julie Puentes, remained as the HASC Orange County registered lobbyist until Oct. 1, according to county records. It’s not known who is the current HASC lobbyist and Puentes did not reply to a phone call or email.

Mental Health Money

Underlying Ayers’ lobbying issues is more than $200 million in Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) funds in the county coffers and how it will be spent.

This issue was central to a June 30 email Ayers wrote to Harman. In it, she said she received a telephone call from Refowitz that lasted about 40 minutes and discussed several issues, including hospital emergency services for mentally ill patients.

For several years, Orange County HASC, through Puentes, has lobbied the county to use some of the MHSA funds to off-set the emergency room costs hospitals incur treating severely mentally ill patients who have nowhere else to go. A special county committee was established in August to work with HASC on the mental health funding issue.

“At no time did he (Refowitz) express concern that I was ‘lobbying’ him on specific policy issues. In fact, I was caught off guard when he abruptly ended the phone call.” Ayers wrote of her phone conversation with Refowitz.

She also said during the conversation “there was no formal ‘ask’ to change County policy. Therefore, I did not consider this conversation as ‘lobbying.’”

But Refowitz told a Voice of OC reporter he became uncomfortable with Ayers’ conversation about mental health funds and called Harman.

“Her (Ayers) concern was it’s difficult for her members, what’s going on in emergency rooms” with mentally ill patients, said Refowitz.

In a June 30 email to Ayers after he was contacted by Refowitz, Harman wrote “Mark Refowitz asked me to review the issues you raised regarding 5150 (mental illness) holds and telehealth. (…) As you and I discussed yesterday afternoon, I concur with Mark that this matter, and all matters wherein it could conceivably be interpreted that HASC may be considered ‘lobbying’ County officials or employees, should be addressed to the County by those at HASC who have not been employed by the County of Orange within the past year….”

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett during an August 25 Board of Supervisors meeting ordered Refowitz to “work with HASC” and create a special “Ad Hoc” committee to establish long-term and short-term policies for handling mentally ill patients.

The committee’s next meeting, which is open to the public, is January 5 at 11:30 a.m. in conference room A at the county Hall of Administration.

Bartlett’s actions followed a report by the county grand jury on how best to handle the issue; and a study by the state Little Hoover Commission that found little oversight over more than $1 billion in MHSA money collected statewide since 2004, when voters approved the act.

It’s not known if Ayers discussed the issue with Bartlett.

Past Issues

This is not he first time Ayers, 31, has been the subject of controversy at the county.

Ayers was an aide to former Supervisor Bill Campbell and when he left office in 2012, a $64,000 a year “transfer/promotion” full time job was created for her in the Health Care Agency, according to emails obtained by the Orange County Employees Association. The Ayers’-specific job was created in March, 2012, according to the emails, but not publicly posted until May.

At the time, such transfers were common for aides to county supervisors, known as EAs. But in 2014, after criticism from many who said the jobs amounted to political patronage, departing supervisors cut back on the practice.

Government watchdog Shirley Grindle along with Common Cause, got the 1993 county ethics lobbying policy adopted following one in a series of political corruption scandals. That one involved Supervisor Don Roth who resigned under pressure weeks before he was convicted of seven misdemeanor counts of violating financial disclosure and conflict-of-interest laws.

After the lobbying ethics policy went into effect, Grindle said there was one violation. Supervisor Harriett Wieder in 1995, tried to lobby her former board colleagues within a year after she left office, said Grindle, but “the board (members) refused to meet with her because of this (policy).”

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

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