Above all else, journalists are responsible for holding those in power accountable. Fulfilling this mission is and always will be the driving force behind Voice of OC.
In 2016, we delved into how corporations spend to influence public policy, the ways in which politicians pull the levers of government to stay in power, and how they use their public offices for private gain.
Here is a sampling of our best efforts:
A county supervisor crosses the line in his use of taxpayer-funded mailers
County Supervisor Andrew Do broke new ground this year in using taxpayer funds to promote himself during his re-election, spending more than $240,000 in county funds on more than 1.2 million mailers billed as event invitations. The mailers, featuring text like “Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do is Helping the People of Orange County Find Their Unclaimed Property," were apparently targeted using voter registration data and have raised questions about the use of mass mail by incumbents to reach their constituents during election season. The state ethics agency is investigating Do's mailers, and a bill was re-introduced in Sacramento to explicitly ban such mailings within 90 days of an election.
Disney spends a record $1 million on the Anaheim City Council election
The political stakes were high in Anaheim this year, as the city held its first election under a new district-based electoral system.
This reality was not lost on Disney, which broke its own campaign spending records in an effort to maintain its influence on the City Council
All told, the media conglomerate poured more than $1 million into political action committees that supported its favored candidates and opposed those aligned with Mayor Tom Tait.
The OC Register’s Top Editor Bows to Pressure From a Prominent Politician
It was a quintessential Orange County story. Months after the Orange County Register reported on an incident in which county Supervisor Todd Spitzer carried a loaded gun into a Wahoo’s Fish Tacos and slapped handcuffs on a man who wouldn’t stop preaching to him, then Editor-in-Chief Rob Curley succumbed to pressure by Spitzer to make additions to the story that cast the supervisor's actions in an entirely different light. Meghann Cuniff, the reporter who wrote the story and protested the change, was later laid off. Curley, who was fired after Digital First Media acquired The Register has since moved on to be editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wa.
Garden Grove mayor’s $58,000 gift from subsidized hotel
Nearly 2,000 Garden Grove residents got a free evening at the Great Wolf Lodge water park hotel earlier this year, and they weren't the only one who benefited. The hotel put on a campaign fundraiser for Councilman Steve Jones, who was running for mayor and had previously voted for over $60 million in public subsidies for the project.
Disclosures that were filed past the deadline showed Jones, who won election in November, received an in-kind donation from the fundraiser worth more than $58,000. The large contribution is not illegal because the city has no limit on campaign contributions.
Keeping watch on Mayor Pulido
No politician in Orange County has warranted more watchdog coverage from Voice of OC than Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido.
Our most read story of 2016 delved into the relationship between Pulido and a downtown restauranteur with ties to convicted criminals and a penchant for lavish partying.
Then, when the election season rolled around Pulido, who won his 12th term as mayor in November, found a way around the city's strict campaign finance laws.
Pulido's entire re-election campaign was run through an "independent expenditure committee" run by a longtime political advisor George Urch, which was not subject to the city's campaign finance limits.
Well over $75,000 was raised into the "IE" committee for Pulido's re-election, including individual checks for $10,000 and $20,000, while $0 flowed through his candidate-controlled committee.
The catch is that it's illegal for candidates to be involved in soliciting money for IEs or deciding how its funds are spent.
However, comments by Pulido overheard by Voice of OC journalists raised questions about whether he has crossed the line.
As Pulido was on the phone, he uttered the words “my campaign” and then suggested that the person on the other end of the line “talk to George Urch, who’s running an IE.”
Urch, meanwhile, insisted that the mayor was not involved in the IE’s activities.
Earlier in the year, Voice of OC revealed Pulido hadn’t paid back personal loans from wealthy patrons in 2013 and 2014 that could reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. If he doesn’t pay them back they could be considered gifts, which could put him in violation of the state’s $460 gift limit — particularly if the lenders have business before the council.
And in July, state authorities fined Pulido $1,366 in connection with $15,750 in debt that disappeared from Pulido’s campaign forms with no record of whether the debt was paid off or forgiven.
Jose Solorio spends campaign cash on apartment rent
When former state Assemblyman Jose Solorio sought to run for an open seat on the Santa Ana City Council, he had a problem: he lived with his family on the other side of town from the Ward 3 seat he was seeking, making him ineligible to run.
So he rented an apartment in the district just before the July deadline to establish residency there. And he decided to use $2,800 in campaign funds for his rent.
But state law bans campaign funds from paying for property leased to a candidate, which is what Solorio did. When Voice of OC asked him about it, he said it was legal because he was using part of his apartment as a campaign office. But the very advice letter he cited in defense said the arrangement was illegal.
Denis Bilodeau’s multiple taxpayer-funded income streams
It pays to be connected in Orange County – especially if you're Denis Bilodeau.
Bilodeau, who is Supervisor Shawn Nelson's chief of staff, earned $177,000 in salary and benefits last year for his full-time county job. But Bilodeau – who depicts himself as a taxpayer watchdog – received another $83,366 in payments and benefits from other public agencies, records show. It's far more outside public money than any of the other supervisors' chiefs of staff.
Bilodeau’s critics question how he can fully serve taxpayers as a supervisor’s full-time right-hand man while also doing enough outside work to justify compensation that amounts to a second full-time government job.
Neither Bilodeau nor Nelson would comment, other than Bilodeau citing his background and experience to serve in the outside positions.
Nelson has himself been the subject of double-dipping allegations for receiving a $765-per-month car allowance from the county while also driving an Air Quality Management District car for free.
Despite Gang Injunction, Reports of Shootings Remain High In Townsend
When touting the controversial gang injunction in Santa Ana’s Townsend Street neighborhood, law enforcement officials have said that while the approach may seem heavy-handed to residents, in the end it makes them safer.
But a Voice of OC analysis of one significant indicator of neighborhood safety — the number of reported shootings — shows the injunction has had no discernible effect.
There were 64 calls to police regarding shootings within the Townsend boundaries in the roughly year and a half before the injunction was instituted in August of 2014; and 65 shootings in the same number of months since, according to the analysis of department data.
Critics of the injunction say the numbers, which include reported shootings through the middle of February, provide evidence for what they’ve been saying all along – that gang injunctions have no measurable impact on increasing neighborhood safety.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that former Orange County Register Editor-in-Chief Rob Curley is now the editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He is the editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wa. Also, an item regarding Supervisor Shawn Nelson running afoul of local campaign finance law was removed because the first article on the issue was published in 2015. We regret the errors.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.