Santana: OC Auditor Controller Leads CA Public Accountants Uprising

County Auditor Controller Eric Woolery. (Photo courtesy: Eric Woolery Facebook page)

Orange County Auditor-Controller Eric Woolery publicly declared before a California State Senate panel two weeks ago in Sacramento that he was “coerced” by County Counsel Leon Page to approve questionable public sector payments for political mailers sent out during last November’s tight election for the first district county supervisors’ seat.

The county mailers, among a batch of nearly $500,000 in public newsletters questionably funded by taxpayers last year during election season, were credited by many as providing a critical edge in the First District county supervisors election, which Republican Andrew Do ultimately won by a narrow margin (0.4 percent) over his Democratic counterpart, Santa Ana City Councilwoman Michele Martinez.

Woolery is also raising alarm bells just as county supervisors are poised today to water down a key 1994 bankruptcy-era reform that requires public review before supervisors can borrow large amounts. Known as the Public Financing Advisory Committee, the panel used to have real power on public financings.

That potentially ends today.

While the county staff report downplays the change, the red-line version of the new ordinance is telling in what is proposed to be struck.

“No proposed public financing shall be considered by the Board of Supervisors except upon the express written recommendation of the Committee,” is the line that is cut out of the current proposed ordinance.

Woolery warns the change is “watering down transparency.”

“You had a PFAC that was put in place for a specific purpose. The Board of Supervisors were borrowing hundreds of millions to invest with the likes of (County Treasurer) Bob Citron…the ordinance was put in place to make sure there was an independent citizens group looking at borrowings,” Woolery said in an interview Monday. “It shines a light on the board.”

Woolery has found himself increasingly at odds with county supervisors, largely over questionable checks.

Woolery tried to reverse a questionable pension payment from taxpayers to Supervisor Shawn Nelson, a Republican who campaigned against pension abuses in 2010, then opted for a public pension once he got elected, then argued to get out of the system and then got himself back in with backdoor negotiations.

Once Nelson, county officials and retirement administrators finalized their latest deal – leaving Nelson as a pensioner as long as he made nearly $100,000 in payments to the retirement system (which he paid from his public office budget) – Woolery tried to intervene arguing Nelson had already denied a pension.

Woolery’s staff actually reversed Nelson’s pension payment, which prompted DA investigators to immediately pounce, accusing Woolery of criminal embezzlement.

When he tried to get his own attorney – to challenge what he saw as an illegal arrangement between Nelson and a host of public sector executives, including the County Counsel – Woolery was rebuffed by Nelson’s own colleagues on the county Board of Supervisors who declined to offer him – despite being a fellow Republican – a chance to make his case.

Despite Woolery’s own misgivings, he would have to rely on the same lawyer that was telling Nelson his deal was ok.

Woolery eventually approved the payouts.

But that’s when he began to seek the statutory ability to have his own legal advice when questioning a payment.

“We have to stand up for ourselves,” said Woolery, who this week is attending a statewide convention for the California State Association of County Auditors in Northern California.

Getting your own legal opinions is a right that both the Sheriff and County Assessor currently have. They can publicly trigger a process where they can seek authorization from the board of supervisors to hire their own specialized legal advice.

Ironically, when county supervisors back in 2012 needed former Orange County Auditor-Controller David Sundstrom to approve their radical plan to withhold $73 million in property taxes from Sacramento (later found to be illegal), he was publicly encouraged by supervisors to hire his own attorney to ensure his approval of the payment met muster in his own mind.

Yet when Woolery wanted to question the irregular pension payment to Nelson, he was shut down on getting his own legal advice.

Woolery’s legislation, SB292, has found a powerful ally in former Orange County Supervisor Pat Bates, who cited the Nelson situation as a motivation for immediate action at last month’s hearing in Sacramento.

The scariest part of this drama is that it is apparently quite common across California.

“The need is widespread,” said Bates – who now leads Senate Republicans – at last month’s hearing at the state capitol.

Indeed, 44 out of 58 auditor controllers from across California are supporting Woolery because they face similar situations.

“I’m in shock this is happening and that we even have to go this far,” said State Senator Janet Nguyen, herself a former Orange County supervisor, during the hearing.

Robert Stark, a former Auditor-Controller from Sutter County, told state senators at last month’s hearing he had been personally destroyed by standing up to questionable pension dealings by his board of supervisors.

Riverside Auditor-Controller Paul Angulo put it in even starker terms to the gathered state senators saying, “You can only have one master.”

“We have no shield. No defense. But we are moving millions,” Angulo said.

Former Supervisor John Moorlach, who is now serving on the state senate committee looking into Woolery’s bill, voiced some misgivings about the legislation.

Moorlach indicated Sheriffs and Assessors amended their powers as part of a broader look at their offices, a ballot initiative, which he seemed to support in this case for Auditors. Absent that, he seemed reluctant to piecemeal revisions to the authority of an independently elected office.

The Senate Government and Finance Committee ultimately approved Woolery’s bill on a 5-0 vote.

We’ll have to see what the full legislature has to say about how independent our auditor controllers should really be in California.

Yet Moorlach makes a great point.

Perhaps it is indeed time to have a statewide conversation, maybe in the form of a ballot initiative, one that really engages the public on why it’s important that auditors actually be able to look under the hood of government, just like Sheriffs or Assessors.

It was, after all, an accountant that took down Al Capone.