As we gear up this week to cast ballots for a slew of politicians seeking to represent the public, Orange County on Tuesday will also get to send them all a collective message about ethics.
Or the lack thereof.
Measure A has keyed up an important conversation this year about stepping up enforcement of ethics for elected officials in our backyard.
It has some key flaws: like the fact that the county Board of Supervisors appoints commissioners and controls the budget.
It has some advantages: like setting up a minimum standard in our county for political regulation where issues could be taken to some sort of local investigatory body that could at the very least opine on issues involving fraud, waste or abuse.
Yet, if you needed any kind of further confirmation that District Attorney Tony Rackaucakas just can’t be depended upon for honest regulation of local politics, last week’s public flogging of his chief rival, Supervisor Todd Spitzer — for a bad word choice on a robocall about Measure A provided it.
Let’s not forget that this is a DA who has given countless Orange County politicians a total free pass for years.
Yet, after being alerted that Spitzer had used the words “assistant district attorney” in a robocall advocating for Measure A, Rackauckas’ massive media team – led by his Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder – went into Defcon-1 Media Blitz mode, alerting reporters across the region about a special press conference “to discuss the recent impersonation of an OCDA assistant district attorney by an Orange County elected official while engaging in a political campaign.”
The lure worked (as nobody plays the “shiny object” game with reporters better than Kang Schroeder) and a scrambled press conference ensued, one where certain members of the public – including county spokeswoman Jean Pasco – were denied access and even reporters had to undergo review before being allowed in.
The sexy headline – “Impersonating DA” – with Spitzer’s picture on a video screen adorned the stage of the press conference theater inside the DA building in downtown Santa Ana.
But at the end of the day, Rackauckas admitted he’s not even filing criminal charges on the issue, only hinting that he’s referred the matter to the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). But I bet the FPPC won’t do a thing because the violation – despite what Rackauckas’ script (also sent to reporters) argues — doesn’t rise to the point of prosecution.
Yet while the case may be weak, the politics are good.
The press conference came days after Spitzer raised questions at the weekly supervisors’ public meeting about Kang Schroeder’s role in getting donors and equipment for an official event for the Human Exploitation and Trafficking (HEAT) unit held by the DA’s office in 2014.
As Voice of OC reported last year, Schroeder used the 2013 event to promote the singing career of her then-business partner, Scott Foster. He performed at the event again in 2014.
Since Voice of OC reported on the music business partnership and Foster, both have all but disappeared.
To me, the whole point of the press conference was to counter the image that Spitzer put out there.
It did that.
Before any reporter could write on what Spitzer alleged, they were driving over to the PR show at Rackauckas’ reality theater. There, they had a nice visual for a story – one that features Spitzer responding to questions as opposed to the other way around.
Yet it’s troubling to see a prosecutor play politics like that.
For example, when Rackauckas showed a screen shot of Spitzer’s comments on the robocall, the script didn’t include the first sentence where Spitzer clearly states he is a current county supervisor.
That’s something Spitzer pointed out in two seconds in an impromptu press conference outside the DA building.
Certainly any reporter pitching that story to an editor would be flogged themselves if they kept out the first sentence of Spitzer’s pitch.
Sad to see a prosecutor knowingly keep out that kind of relevant fact in a public presentation.
Then again, isn’t that exactly what the jailhouse snitch scandal is all about?
This prosecutors’ shop doesn’t play fair.
Now to be clear:
It’s totally misleading for Spitzer to say, or write or indicate that he is an ADA without indicating that he’s a former ADA.
It’s a cheap political trick.
And it might be fair for Rackauckas to call him out on it like he did.
But for that call to have any real standing, Rackauckas would have to be calling out other types of questionable campaigning.
If not, it looks like he’s just taking a cheap political shot himself.
That’s a scary approach for the county’s top criminal watchdog.
Who Got Hired At The Public Administrator/Public Guardian Shop?
Another critical issue identified at Rackauckas’ shop by our local grand jury last week was the bad management of the Public Administrator/Public Guardian.
I touted the report, which I had just read after being distracted by Rackauckas’ Spitzer presser, as the kind of public auditing that just isn’t happening anymore here locally during a talk last week with the Grand Jurors Association of Orange County, where I celebrated our citizen watchdogs and their stellar work as a group.
Virtually every person I’ve ever talked to about their grand jury service remembers it as a very special yearlong experience. I’d encourage anybody looking to take on a critical challenge to apply to be a member of the annual group selected each year.
One thing I publicly lamented in their latest report is the fact that they don’t disclose names in their investigations.
So how are we to find out about the report’s bombshell allegations about hiring people with connections to the district attorney’s office at the Public Administrator’s office?
I guess Rackauckas’ crack media squad could step up and issue a press release disclosing who got hired…
So who is Orange County’s Real Watchdog?
All this makes you wonder, who is supposed to be Orange County’s taxpayer watchdog?
Most of our massive, multi-billion dollar law enforcement complex – agencies like the DA, sheriff’s and probation departments – are geared toward handling violent and petty but not politically connected crooks.
Consider that county supervisors – who run a key local institution always in need of watch-dogging – have yet to fill the job of performance auditor since they fired the last one a few years back.
And rarely as a group do they ever do a deep dive into the mechanics of their own business.
Just last week, the county’s Audit Oversight Committee – a key reform that came out of the 1994 bankruptcy – heard complaints that the board of supervisors isn’t paying attention to vacant appointments (Supervisor Lisa Bartlett and Shawn Nelson apparently have outstanding appointments) and they lack meaningful meetings because of vacancies.
Again, another check that isn’t functioning as it should…
In the midst of this void, County Auditor Controller Eric Woolery seems to be to stepping up on fiscal issues, working to become known as Orange County’s fiscal watchdog.
He’s definitely engaging more with the press.
Woolery has asked Voice of OC to help moderate a public session he is hosting on June 13, “Accounting for Activists” with the aim of helping members of the public dissect public finance as they try to understand government agency impacts across their communities.
He’s also going straight up against county supervisors, who are increasingly uncomfortable with his efforts to review their payments and check their power.
In the last six months, he’s held back payments on legally-questionable mailers sent out by Supervisor Andrew Do and continues to question county payments being made to fund Supervisor Shawn Nelson’s pension from his supervisor’s office budget.
“I have the same authority to authorize and reject claims just as the board (of supervisors) does, but my attorney doesn’t see it that way,” Woolery said in a recent interview.
County supervisors and County Counsel Leon Page argue that if Woolery questions a payment, and county counsel (which is hired by supervisors) does not agree, he can’t seek an outside opinion.
Now, that is very different from the view of supervisors when former Auditor Controller David Sundstrom was allowed to get his own attorney to analyze supervisors’ contention that they were owed $73 million in property taxes instead of other agencies such as local community colleges (they lost later in court after the state sued them).
Nonetheless, supervisors, such as Nelson, argue that Woolery is just plain wrong about his mandate as an independent spending check on them.
Nelson argues that Woolery is not a legislative elected official who can hire his own lawyers to question payments. He is a function of the board of supervisors, like a guy who runs the cash register – making sure that everything that is authorized by supervisors goes to the right vendors.
As strange as Nelson’s pension deal is with the Orange County Employees Retirement System (OCERS), both sides argue that once they both agree, Woolery’s only role is to issue a check.
Woolery argues he has a right to question the legality of a pension deal involving an elected official who took a very public stance to deny himself a pension; and then took one, with funds coming out of his office budget.
The conflict between the two sides has gotten so hot that county supervisors met in secret session earlier this year and actually discussed eliminating Woolery as an elected official – transferring his duties to other departments or just making his job an appointed slot altogether, as is done in some other counties.
In the meantime, we have a situation where the Auditor Controller of Orange County is essentially rejecting a payment made last month to fund the second of four payments to a county supervisor’s pension but he has to issue a check under duress because the county counsel – who is hired by county supervisors – has authorized it.
In a May 16, 2016 memo attached to Nelson’s pension payment Woolery wrote that “the questions that caused this office to request outside legal counsel for an independent opinion still remain. No additional information that would support the payment has been provided by the supervisor, county counsel or OCERS relative to my concerns since the first installment was made in August 2015.”
He made his second payment under duress this past month by concluding: “Obtaining an independent legal opinion might cause a change in the status of the payments for this settlement agreement. Until that independent legal opinion is obtained the only legal advisement available to support the payments for this settlement agreement remain one provided by County Counsel and is what is being relied on to make these payments.”
When Woolery rejected making the first payment to Nelson’s pension last year, he had district attorney investigators show up at his door and reportedly threaten him with prosecution as an embezzler.
Again, that’s the fastest I’ve ever heard of district attorney investigators engaging in an issue connected to a politician.
Maybe next year, when it’s time for the third payment on Nelson’s pension settlement, Woolery will have an ethics commission he can take the issue to for advice.