The county of Orange alleges in a new court filing that Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana Jr. “coached” Supervisor Todd Spitzer on his demands for a correction to an Orange County Register article that scrutinized Spitzer’s behavior when he made a citizen’s arrest last year at a Wahoo's Fish Tacos restaurant.
The county’s court filing – which is in response to a Voice of OC lawsuit under the California Public Records Act for disclosure of emails withheld by the county and related to the incident -- depicts Santana as acting like Spitzer’s personal media advisor. The Voice of OC publisher even tells Spitzer that he “cared” about the supervisor and his political career, according to the filing.
(Click here to read the county’s court filing.)
It goes on to allege that Spitzer’s correction demand was done at Santana’s insistence, and that a new quote from Spitzer in the Register piece was "consistent with what Mr. Santana had urged."
Santana Monday described Spitzer’s allegations as mischaracterizations of their conversations. He said he called Spitzer while reporting for a column, and that he was merely being transparent as to why it was an important story and what the implications were for Spitzer’s plans to run for district attorney.
“With all due respect to Supervisor Spitzer, I think he has mischaracterized our conversations," Santana said. "From day one this has always been about finding out what happened that day at Wahoo’s [Fish Tacos] and whether Supervisor Spitzer’s actions were reasonable or not reasonable. Period. The documents we’re seeking we hope will shed light on that. Certainly Supervisor Spitzer’s [court] pleadings have not.”
Regarding the county’s allegation that Santana told Spitzer he “cared” about the supervisor’s political career, Santana said Spitzer was mischaracterizing his statements again, but he also said that he couldn’t completely recall exactly what he said.
“I don’t think I said that. But honestly I just don’t recall that aspect of our conversation,” Santana said. “At some point I might have said something like, this isn’t personal, I don’t have anything against you.”
The Sept. 3 Register article in question focused on an April 2015 incident in which Spitzer handcuffed a man at the Wahoo’s in Foothill Ranch after he wouldn’t stop preaching to the supervisor about God. Spitzer had a loaded gun in his fanny pack during the incident, and his actions came under intense scrutiny from multiple media outlets.
The Register gave a blow-by-blow account. Spitzer later claimed that then Register reporter Meghann Cuniff had left out a crucial detail that he had provided to her – specifically that the man, Jeovany Castellano, was repeatedly asked to leave and assertively approached Spitzer before the supervisor decided to place him in handcuffs.
Spitzer pressured then Register Editor-in-Chief Rob Curley to correct the article and accused Cuniff, who was laid off from the paper earlier this year, of having a personal agenda.
On Oct. 29, almost two months after the article was published, the Register changed its online story to include a quote from Spitzer with the new details. The Register did not include a correction note, even though the piece was changed in a material way that cast Spitzer’s actions in a more favorable light.
Then this March, Voice of OC published an article that included a review of all available public records of the incident and quoted media experts who were highly critical of the Register for not including a correction note and for caving to pressure from a prominent politician. The story was written by reporter Adam Elmahrek, and supervised and edited by David Washburn, Voice of OC's editor.
For that article, Voice of OC examined Cuniff's audio recorded interview of Spitzer as well as police incident reports and a deputy’s interview of Spitzer recorded on a patrol car dashcam minutes after the incident. The review found no evidence to support Spitzer's correction demand nor the quote that was added to the article.
The county's court filing claims that Spitzer didn’t want to seek the correction until Santana had pushed him to do so, and that Santana had argued the alleged discrepancy constituted “irresponsible journalism.” Santana “insisted” that Spitzer demand the correction and told Spitzer he didn’t think “highly” of Cuniff's work.
After the Register changed the article, the filing states Spitzer texted Santana and wrote, “I need your guidance. Register updated story to include castellano coming back at me. Is that good enough?”
Santana responded: “Lemme check...on the road...yet that was the main key missing fact...u should be good...call u at 1:30 p.m.”
Santana said Spitzer twisted the conversation to make it look as if he was acting as Spitzer’s confidant and media consultant. In fact, Santana was grilling Spitzer about the incident, the Voice of OC publisher claims.
During Santana’s interview with Spitzer, the supervisor insisted that Cuniff had reported the story inaccurately, Santana said. That’s when Santana told Spitzer if that’s true, he should be seeking a correction from the newspaper. Santana described his statements as a challenge to Spitzer’s contention that Cuniff’s reporting was inaccurate.
The timeline as presented in the Register made Spitzer “look like a maniac,” Santana said he told Spitzer. Regarding his comments about Cuniff, Santana said he was pointing out that she was a young reporter and he wasn’t very familiar with her work. Though he acknowledged he told Spitzer he wasn’t impressed with what he had seen so far.
Santana said he interpreted Spitzer’s text message as “are you off my back now” that the Register vetted Spitzer’s correction demand and made a correction to the timeline of events in the article.
“Everything I said to Supervisor Spitzer was in the interest of transparency as a reporter to let him know what the implications of his actions in print would be and how key timelines made him either look odd or manic, and there would be a big difference for both,” Santana said.
“I felt it fair as a reporter to let the official know exactly what I was looking into. And that’s why I went into such great detail with him.”