Spitzer Targets Double-Dipping by Nelson and Bilodeau

From left: OC Supervisor Todd Spitzer, Supervisor Shawn Nelson, and Nelson's chief of staff, Denis Bilodeau.

Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer has escalated his long-running feud with fellow Supervisor Shawn Nelson, introducing measures this week that ban the kind of double-dipping from taxpayer funds that Nelson and his chief of staff have long engaged in.

For years, Nelson has been collecting a $765-per-month car allowance from the county despite getting a publicly-funded car for free as a perk of his appointment to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) board.

So far, Nelson has received about $50,000 in car allowance payments from the county while being issued an AQMD car, which he's had nearly continuously since February 2011. And Denis Bilodeau, Nelson's top aide at the county, received $83,000 in payments and benefits last year from other public agencies on top of the $177,000 in salary and benefits he earns from his full-time job at the county.

Included in Bilodeau's outside income last year was nearly $38,000 for being Nelson's policy aide at AQMD, which has led to questions about why he gets the extra money when he’s already getting a full-time salary from the county to help Nelson.

Nelson has defended his perks by saying he’s sacrificing by serving on the Board of Supervisors because he used to make much more money as a private attorney. While serving as a supervisor, Nelson has continued to receive more than $100,000 each year from his law firm, according to his financial disclosures.

The double-dipping by Nelson and Bilodeau has drawn the ire of some of their fellow Republicans, including public criticism of Bilodeau by prominent GOP activist Jon Fleischman.

“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?” Fleischman asked earlier this year. “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?

Bilodeau has said little publicly in response to the criticism, other than saying AQMD pays him to assist Nelson “in analyzing proposed regulations and other related technical tasks.”

Now, Spitzer is stepping into the fray. He's placed two items on next Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors agenda that would prohibit exactly what Nelson and Bilodeau have been doing.

The changes would ban supervisors from accepting a car for more than seven days per month from another government agency, such as AQMD, where they’re appointed by the Board of Supervisors.

The new rules would also ban supervisors’ staff and contractors from taking compensation from an outside agency for helping the supervisor at that agency without prior approval by a majority of the Board of Supervisors.

Violations require the offending supervisor to “immediately forfeit” their appointment to the outside agency, and a new vote by supervisors to fill the vacant seat.

(Click here to read Spitzer’s proposal.)

Spitzer needs two other supervisors’ votes on Tuesday for the item to pass.

Neither Spitzer, Nelson nor Bilodeau returned calls for comment.

Nelson and Bilodeau are not the only public officials who have come under fire for double-dipping. Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido has used his position to earn nearly six figures annually in addition to his pay for serving on city council.

Westminster is another place where City Council members are known for "double-dipping" by taking benefits from multiple taxpayer-funded sources.

Spitzer’s effort is a rare public move against a fellow supervisor. He and Nelson have a history of feuds, including public accusations from Nelson that Spitzer was “grandstanding” in front of TV cameras in when trying to pass a law against underage drinking.

Nelson also publicly criticized Spitzer’s political fundraising through a Republican Party Central Committee account, suggesting that Spitzer was trying to get around the county’s campaign finance limits.

“Is it an ethical approach to what people understand is a fundraising cap? No,” Nelson told the Orange County Register about Spitzer’s approach.

Spitzer is also widely believed to be eyeing a run for District Attorney in 2018, which would likely pit him against his archrival District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. Nelson and Rackauckas have worked closely together in the past, and Nelson has criticized some of Spitzer’s attacks against Rackauckas.

It remains to be seen if Spitzer will succeed in getting the votes he needs to push through the double-dipping ban.

Tuesday’s supervisors meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. at the county Hall of Administration in Santa Ana.

This story has been updated to include that Nelson has had an AQMD car since February 2011, and that the amount of county car allowances he's received in that time is about $50,000.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.