Wrongful Termination Suit by Former Assessor’s Office Staffers Headed for Trial

A wrongful termination lawsuit by two longtime employees in the county Assessor’s Office who allege they were fired by Assessor Claude Parrish for reporting numerous illegal acts within the agency, is scheduled to head to a jury trial in October.

Larry Bales and Jorge Lopez, who both worked for the county for over 30 years, were hired as extra help employees by Parrish after his election in 2014.

They claim Parrish hired them to conduct audits and identify issues within the department but fired them when he became overwhelmed by the volume and severity of the issues they were raising.

The Assessor’s Office has been under scrutiny since Sept. 2014, when District Attorney Tony Rackauckas charged former Assessor Webster Guillory with filing false election papers during a last-minute dash to collect signatures from county employees for his nomination papers.

Guillory, 71, was ultimately convicted of two misdemeanor counts and was sentenced to 2 years of probation, 30 days of community service and a $500 fine.

Bales and Lopez, who are claiming retaliation and breach of contract by the County, originally filed their lawsuit in August 2015.

Among other things, they alleged falsifying of payroll and expense reports by a high-level manager; intentional over assessment of taxpayers; and a lack of accountability for service contracts.

“During the three weeks that Bales and Lopez worked in the Assessor’s Office, they encountered obstacles and resistance trying to carry out assignments,” the lawsuit says. “Bales and Lopez were never given open access to staff or records. Bales and Lopez were pulled off from meetings that they were scheduled to attend last-minute for fear of what they might disclose or bring up during these meetings.”

The complaint also characterizes Parrish as unfit for office, “clueless and confused,” showing up to work at noon and at times bragging “about how he was hiding alcohol in his water bottles.”

In a motion to delete portions of Bales’ and Lopez’ complaint, county attorneys argued that the case sought to “slime the reputation of Assessor Claude Parrish” with statements that are irrelevant to their lawsuit.

“Plaintiffs clearly want to turn this case into a circus,” the county attorneys wrote. “Their Opposition, like their complaint, is dripping with slimy personal attacks meant to confuse, mislead and cause unfair prejudice.”

Richard Jorgensen, the attorney representing Bales and Lopez, said Parrish’s misconduct, amidst a culture of corruption in county government, establishes his motive for firing the two employees.

At a hearing Tuesday morning, Orange County Superior Court Judge Frederick P. Aguirre granted the county’s motion to strike several of the statements about Parrish’s tardiness and drinking, noting that “even if not intended to embarrass him or injure his reputation as assessor, they serve no other purpose.”

Bales and Lopez were both outspoken employees during their time at the Assessor’s Office. Before he retired in 2002 after a heart attack, Bales was known for getting his bosses convicted on corruption charges and has run for Assessor several times.

They filed several complaints against Guillory about his 2014 nomination papers to the DA, Grand Jury and FBI. Lopez also ran for Assessor against Guillory and Parrish in the June 2014 primary, getting 9.5 percent of the vote.

Lopez claims in the lawsuit that Parrish approached him after the June primary seeking his endorsement in a run-off election against Guillory and advice about the Assessor’s Office. Parrish later offered him a job “for the rest of [his] life,” according to the complaint.

As extra help employees, Bales and Lopez did not have an employment contract and serve at-will.

A jury trial is currently scheduled for Oct. 11.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.