Orange County Auditor Controller Eric Woolery is halting payments on several mass mailers sent by supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Andrew Do over concerns that they may violate state regulations that limit how elected officials’ can display their names on publicly funded mail.
Woolery’s decision comes after a Voice of OC story last Thursday raised issues about two mailers recently sent by the Do’s First District office and Bartlett’s Fifth District office.
It also comes amid Do’s reelection campaign and after Garden Grove Councilman Phat Bui, who is running against Do for the First District seat, filed a complaint last week with the state’s ethics watchdog about mailers sent by Do’s office.
Woolery said his office first started looking into mailers sent by Do and Bartlett two weeks ago, after a member of his staff raised questions about an invoice for mailers paid for by Bartlett’s office.
“It came forward when one of my staff, who I’ve asked to act as watchdogs and bring items of interest to my attention, brought up an issue with paying one of these invoices,” said Woolery.
After reviewing invoices for other mailers serviced by the same vendor, including several in Do’s office, Woolery says he became concerned that they might violate the Mass Mailing Act, which restricts how elected officials statewide can display their name and likeness on taxpayer-funded mailers, with the intent of keeping incumbents and other candidates on a level playing field
Woolery’s reading of the law is apparently at odds with that of County Counsel Leon Page, and his decision to halt the payments has rankled some in county government who say he is overstepping his bounds by going against the opinion of the county’s top attorney. Page and county attorneys have a policy of not speaking to the press.
Both Bartlett and Do’s offices have said they mailed the fliers with the blessing of county attorneys, who review the mailers for compliance with the county’s branding policy and the Mass Mailing Act.
Woolery, meanwhile, says the act allows just a single mention of elected officials, while the mailers sent by Bartlett and Do contain at least three.
It prohibits references to elected officials on mailers except under a few exceptions, such as in a letterhead, return address or to state that an official is attending an event. After that, there should not be “any other reference to the elected officer” — including their photo, signature, pronouns like “I” or “we,” and references to their district.
Bartlett didn’t return a call for comment. Although Do’s office refused Monday to comment to Voice of OC, Do, in an interview with The Orange County Register, questioned why Woolery was challenging the advice of county lawyers, who review and approve mailers before they are sent.
“Sometimes Mr. Woolery forgets his role as an auditor,” Do told the Register. “He is impugning the work of county counsel… It is extremely puzzling that he would come up with a legal assessment or suspicion without consulting the lawyer for the county.”
Woolery said he is holding off on the payments until he has the chance to meet face-to-face with Page, a meeting which is not scheduled until after Woolery returns from vacation on April 13. Woolery has not consulted any outside attorneys about the mailers.
Woolery argues that it is not only within his authority, but his statutory duty, to withhold payments if the mailers are illegal.
“We have a duty to look at these payments, and that’s what we’re in the process of doing. If it’s valid and legal, we’ll go ahead and pay it,” Woolery said. “As for county counsel’s opinion, I have not heard that yet.”
He and his spokeswoman stressed that although they did not intend to make the issue public until after Woolery met with Page, news articles and inquiries from an Orange County Register reporter forced them to disclose the fact.
A Register reporter called Woolery’s spokeswoman, Meg Waters, the day after Voice of OC’s story published, inquiring about the mailers.
“This isn’t a brand new law — it’s been around a long time,” Waters said. “There may be some provision that we’re not aware of…and that’s why [Woolery] and [Page] are going to meet next week.”
Although the FPPC does not comment on specific issues, FPPC staff said in an interview that in general, exceptions apply to the mailing as a whole, and agencies should pick the one exception that is most applicable to a mailing.
However, under some exceptions in the law, more than one mention can be appropriate, although it’s not clear how many mentions would be crossing the line.
Waters said that Woolery’s staff has not sent written notices to Bartlett and Do advising them of their decision to halt the payments, noting that the decision is preliminary and their office has yet to review all the flyers.
So far, Woolery has stopped $43,766 in payments on six mailers sent by Do for a health fair, tax preparation event, job fair and unclaimed property event. They have also identified invoices and purchase for at least four other event mailers.
Woolery has also stopped $118,340 in payments for two mailers sent by Bartlett to 100,620 homes, advertising the South County Pet Expo and OC Parks Adventure Day.
“We aren’t saying that any or all are illegal, we haven’t seen all the flyers yet,” said Waters.
In the past, Woolery has pushed back at supervisors in an attempt to expand the scope of his office. In 2015, he lobbied for supervisors to return oversight of the county’s internal audit office to the auditor-controller, reversing a reform put in place after the county’s 1994 bankruptcy.
That change also put Woolery, who is independently elected, in charge of a fraud hotline which handles reports by whistleblowers inside the county government, misuse of county resources, and major violations of county policy.
He also pushed, unsuccessfully, to get supervisors to approve separate legal counsel for his office, arguing that there is an inherent conflict for county counsel to advise the auditor controller when it comes to issues with the Board.
Aside from Woolery, Garden Grove Councilman Phat Bui, who is running against Do in his bid for reelection as Supervisor on June 7, has also raised concerns about the use of supervisor’s names in mass mailers.
Bui filed an FPPC complaint last week — on his official campaign letterhead — challenging three mailers sent by Do’s office.
“The mailing in question features Andrew Do’s name three times, including one reference in larger type than any other copy in the announcement,” the complaint states, referring to a mailer promoting a tax filing event.
Bui said he did not include Bartlett in his complaint because he was not aware of any potential violations by her office until he read an article about her mailers, two days after he filed the complaint on March 29.
Bui has claimed, based on mailers given to him by constituents, that Do has sent more than 20 mailers that potentially violate state law.
“I think its another example of corruption in our county government. The supervisors think they can just ignore the law,” Bui said.
In his interview with the Register, Do characterized Bui’s complaint as a political stunt.
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.