There are five people who serve in the highest echelons of county government, but rarely draw attention: chiefs of staff to the Board of Supervisors.
They all enjoy six-figure salaries and wield considerable power behind the scenes. But where they differ – sometimes wildly – is in how much public money they receive from outside agencies. On this front, standing high above the rest is Denis Bilodeau, chief of staff to Supervisor Shawn Nelson.
In addition to earning $177,000 in salary and benefits last year for his full-time county job, Bilodeau – who depicts himself as a taxpayer watchdog – received another $83,366 in payments and benefits from other public agencies, records show.
Bilodeau’s haul last year included $45,097 in stipend payments, insurance, and pension benefits for serving on the Orange County Water District board, and $37,868 for being Nelson’s policy aide at the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Altogether, Bilodeau’s total public compensation last year was $260,921, according to a Voice of OC review of records from each agency. His penchant for racking up public pay has led his detractors to refer to him as “Denis Billsomedough.”
The chiefs of staff to supervisors Lisa Bartlett, Todd Spitzer, and Michelle Steel don’t report any work at outside public agencies. Supervisor Andrew Do’s top aide, Brian Probolsky received about $26,000 in pay and benefits last year as a board member at Moulton Niguel Water District – less than a third of what Bilodeau made.
Jon Fleischman, a longtime Republican Party insider who publishes the conservative news website Flash Report, speaks for many of Bilodeau’s critics by questioning how he can fully serve taxpayers as a supervisor’s second-in-command and also do enough outside work to justify compensation that amounts to a second full-time government job.
“I don’t mind if somebody is being paid a wage for a job that is done,” said Fleischman. “But the concern would be: If he’s already being paid full-time to give all of his professional hours to helping Shawn Nelson as a supervisor, then what’s he getting paid by the AQMD to do? And if he’s getting paid by the AQMD to help Shawn Nelson, then why are the taxpayers of the county of Orange” paying to pick up his salary?
Fleischman suggested that Bilodeau “provide some kind of timekeeping” to show how he’s doing the work for each agency that he’s being paid for.
Bilodeau did not return a reporter’s phone call for comment, but did send an email in which he referred to this article as a “smear piece.”
“The AQMD provides each board member with a stipend for a technical assistant to assist them in analyzing proposed regulations and other related technical tasks,” Bilodeau wrote. “Supervisor Nelson has selected me to assist him given my background and experience.”
A Common Practice
Bilodeau is far from the only public official who has come under fire for generating multiple streams of income from public agencies. Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido has long exploited his position to earn nearly six figures annually in addition to his pay for serving on city council.
Westminster is another place where council members are known for “double-dipping” by taking benefits from multiple taxpayer-funded sources.
And Nelson, who did not return a call for comment, has himself been the subject of double-dipping allegations for receiving a $765-per-month car allowance from the county while also driving an AQMD-issued car for free.
Questions about Bilodeau’s outside compensation have dogged him for years. In 2010, Voice of OC revealed that he had billed the water district just over $3,000 for 17 meetings for which official records show him as absent. And he claimed another $382 in stipends for two meetings that never occurred, the records showed.
Bilodeau claimed at the time that the district’s meeting records were inaccurate, and that he instead had arrived late. But he had voted to certify many of these meeting minutes as accurate, and when other board members arrived late, they were marked as such.
“Bilodeau also accepted stipends for meetings of dubious public value, most notably a dinner held by the OC Taxpayers Association [political action committee] at the luxurious Island Hotel in Newport Beach,” wrote the OC Weekly, which broke that story.
More recently, Debbie Cook, a former Huntington Beach mayor and environmental advocate who closely monitors the district, has called Bilodeau out for showing up to only part of water district board and committee meetings.
“Clearly he can’t do all the jobs,” Cook said. “Almost every single meeting he comes late and leaves early. He’ll pop into a meeting for 20 minutes – even less – and he’ll still get his stipend. So clearly he’s just coming to get his stipend and just leave.”
The water district’s stipends were $221 per day of service until mid-September, when they were bumped to $250 per day. Board members are capped at 10 paid service days per month.
That means a board member who attends the maximum 10 paid meetings per month would have earned about $27,200 in “stipend” pay last year, in addition to pension and insurance benefits.
In addition to about $23,000 in pension and insurance benefits from the water district, Bilodeau earned just over $22,000 in “stipend” pay, which comes out to an average of about eight meetings per month.
The key question here is whether the public is getting what they’re paying for, said Tracy Westen, a longtime expert on government ethics. “If they’re paying for full-time, they ought to be getting the equivalent of full-time work,” he said.
But when it comes to policy consulting, he said, it’s harder to judge, because what might take one person several hours to do another person can do in an hour.
It’s a question that Bilodeau himself could best answer, Westen said.
Clarification: A previous version of this article did not make it clear that Denis Bilodeau’s $177,000 compensation from the county includes both salary and benefits.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.