Santana: The Lack of Ethics Commission

I’m starting to wonder whether we should just call it the Lack of Ethics Commission.

It’s been 14 months since Orange County voters overwhelming approved a county board of supervisors’ very tame plan to implement a Campaign Finance and Ethics commission.

Yet so far, only Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who helped write the ordinance, has named an appointee to the five-member panel that is supposed to help better regulate and educate on campaign finance in our county.

“Failure on their part to appoint Commissioners is not acceptable,” said local campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle, who wrote the county’s first campaign finance ordinance in 1978 and worked with Nelson to craft the ethics commission ordinance that went before voters in the 2016 June Primary election.

Imagine, how does the commission’s Executive Director Denah Hoard work on something as challenging as scrutinizing the ethics of politicians without a strong communitywide board of directors, especially in a model where the executive charged with calling balls and strikes is appointed by the very people they have to call out?

The short answer is, she probably doesn’t.

Not without strong community backup.

That’s what the board of directors – albeit supervisors’ appointees – were supposed to provide.

Not even bothering to appoint them is pretty lame, not to mention an insult to voters after so much time.

So far, this version of an Orange County ethics commission seems like another expensive wash of an oversight agency.

Unfortunately, it seems like more of the same kind of empty, government oversight machinery – financed as always by local taxpayers – brought to you by Orange County Supervisors.

Much like the vacant Office of Independent Review or the County Performance Auditor. These two, so-called accountability reforms, have largely been funded but frozen, left without any sort of leadership or direction for several years.

Even Auditor Controller Eric Woolery has effectively been neutralized – in terms of checking improper county spending – because he has yet to secure his own legal counsel.

In the meantime, there’s little regulation on the myriad tricky situations that arise with the challenging, even competing, rules on campaign finance.

This is the real challenge of holding public office as a county supervisor.

More and more, these folks are fundraising from the very vendors they are approving contracts for.

Now I’m sure that appointing your own special prosecutor to look into your own campaign spending sounds nutty if you’re a county supervisor.

But when you think it through, there’s much to be said for having competent professionals that can opine, in real time, about questions involving the timing and conditions of campaign contributions.

Consider Nick Gerda’s recent story involving Supervisor Nelson, who handled by himself an odd receipt of wine from a D.C.-based lobby shop he help secure a county contract.

Now, for some reason, these lunkhead lobbyists returned Nelson’s support by sending him wine in a county with a gift ban ordinance. Another contractor sent Nelson cigars.

Nelson, in turn, reports the gifts in his campaign finance records as basically paying the lobbyists back for the wine and cigars from his campaign finance account.

Super odd.

Now, Nelson should have been able to call up a fully functioning ethics commission here and ask for some direction, even get a decision, on the odd situation facing him.

Cover.

You’d think his expert campaign aides would have advised him better, to have just returned the wine and cigars – along with a note about the gift ban ordinance to our new county lobbyist.

Unfortunately for him, he didn’t get that advice.

He should have.

I spoke with Nelson after our story ran and he voiced concerns that publicizing the issue was unfair to him.

He disclosed the odd contribution, he said. He paid for it with campaign funds, which could be a separate problem for him under state law. But Nelson insists it wasn’t a gift.

Calling him out in the press for a perceived ethics violation on this was just unfair, he insists.

“Can I give you the cigars and the wine and we’ll call it even?” joked Nelson.

Now, I get these issues aren’t simple.

I don’t think he sold himself for wine and cigars.

Heck, he even helped Grindle write the ethics commission ordinance.

Yet the optics here are absolutely newsworthy.

Nelson’s creativity creates new precedents. New loopholes.

To me, the entire affair underscores that Orange County Supervisors – who lets just stipulate are all decent people trying to make a difference and fundraising in a challenging environment – need better oversight, better advice.

Better engagement.

Maybe this is also sign that it’s time to start thinking about amending the county ordinance altogether and giving the ethics commission much more independence, a bigger budget, along with a more vigorous training and advice mandate.

Can we really expect politicians to police themselves?

  • verifiedsane

    How bad can the cronyism and this creation of political royalty get? termed out BoS Nelson running for Judge? termed out BoS Spitzer running for DA? Is this really what the voters of OC want in their elected representation….an entrenched, corrupt, & criminal oligarchy ruling over every public government institution in OC. This is paramount to ending all semblance of our most basic premise for separation of powers..these scary political animals are just shuffling the rigged deck & exchanging positions of power…time to wake up citizens!

  • Ed Romero

    Ethic Commission WHAT A JOKE. Which is almost as funny as LYING TRUMP being President.

    • verifiedsane

      Another Dumocrat jumping off the cliff, without thinking….happy landings comrade 🙂

  • Daniel Lamb

    Mr. Santana, you have lost all credibility on the question of ethics.

    You directed your staff to ignore questions regarding this organization’s business practices.

    You degraded people suffering from mental illness.

    Do you deny it?

    And while I would never desparage people in my community by going out of my way to deny a mental illness, why did you think it was ok to accuse me of suffering from a mental illness?

    Why do you think it is appropriate to direct your staff to ignore people with mental illness?

    Sir, you are prejudice.

    Resign.

  • Cynthia Ward

    I will offer a conflicting opinion here. (Disclosure, I am a Nelson appointee to a politically powerless (but extremely well run and efficient) Special District where I receive $100 and lunch for my service, equating to a net loss of income when compared to the hours put in, but I disclose that none the less) It seems like Nelson is the only one who HAS even tried to do anything right here. He DID work with Shirley Grindle to come up with something for voters, and while it is not perfect, it passed. And he is the only one of the BoS who has appointed someone to the Board, something the others should be ashamed of for not following through on.

    As far as the cigars and wine, it says none of the bottles are valued at more than $50, and frankly I doubt any of those bottles went home to his personal cellar. If the wine and cigars are doled out to others (I happen to know he makes very generous gifts of cigars to Veterans at the fairgrounds event) and are not part of his personal stash for his personal consumption, I see no issue with this one. The items are gifts to constituents which is what campaign and office holder accounts are for, and yes it can be seen as currying favor with the public, welcome to politics, I would rather have elected leaders sharing wine and cigars paid for by others and reimbursed than sharing taxpayer dollars for that attention. Is the BoS perfect? Nope, and I have called Shawn out when I felt it was warranted but this is not one of those times, in my opinion.

    • verifiedsane

      “I am a Nelson appointee” anything after that statement must be placed in the context that a Nelson appointee is without any doubt going to attempt to whitewash and underplay her bosses unethical & possibly illegal actions…it’s wine and cigar gifts uncovered now…yet, we all must wonder & ask…what other graft was exchanged in secret out of public view..obviously an Nelson insider will never ask those hard questions.

      This is little different than Todd Spitzer creating fake campaign comment accounts to use as attack mechanisms against opponents in his DA run. Maybe Cynthia Ward drinks $50 dollar bottles of wine everyday? A Reality Check! most of us lowly commoners and citizens would rarely splurge when purchasing even a $10 dollar bottle…this shows how completely out of touch the ruling class are with those they supposedly represent.

  • Ed Romero

    How many bottles of wine and how many boxes of cigars did Nelson receive for that appointment????

  • LFOldTimer

    I smelled a rat before the EC ordinance even went to the vote of the people. I warned the people it was a scam and not to vote for it. But the cheerleaders told me to be quiet – that I was just being a negative troll. They said the EC commission was just what the doctor ordered and would keep the dirty politicians in check. lol.

    Now fast forward 14 months. My worst fears have come to fruition. Now even the guy who wrote the EC ordinance (Shawn Nelson) is making a mockery of the system! lol.

    Face it, folks. YOU HAVE NO OVERSIGHT IN OC. The watchdogs have either been poisoned or thrown steak bones to shut them up. Foxes enter the hen house at will and have their way with the chickens without any fear of punishment. Just like in a 3rd world banana republic.

    These scoundrels don’t care about you or integrity or a check and balance system. All they care about is lining their own pockets and building personal political kingdoms for themselves. Real watchdogs would only serve as obstacles and get in their way. So the watchdogs have been neutered and are only there as window dressing to fool you into believing that the bad guys are being monitored. Nothing is further from the truth.

    Wake up and smell the coffee. You’re being conned.

    • Citizens for Animal Shelter, O

      “you have no oversight in OC” …The taxpayers have invested $30 million plus in a badly needed county animal shelter to replace the dilapidated 76 year current one, and currently a $26 million operating budget estimated for 2017 budget, and there is currently no oversight nor regulatory body. We have been requesting oversight for almost 2 years and both the Board of Supervisors and the so-call City Managers Association Animal Care Committee have to date denied it. This is the latest incident at the Orange County Animal which we have reported to both the BoS and CMAACC. Unsanitary conditions……
      https://youtu.be/u9vmoBh0RiE

    • Sergio Garcia

      And the solution is…

  • verifiedsane

    Did I just read a bunch of gingerly worded subterfuge and apologetic double speak?….first this piece lays out the mechanisms OC BoS are using to purposely undermined any and all efforts at independent oversight…and then ends with what good and decent people these same BoS political animals are…

    Quote: “To me, the entire affair underscores that Orange County Supervisors –
    who lets just stipulate are all decent people trying to make a
    difference and fundraising in a challenging environment – need better
    oversight, better advice.”

    Talk about pulling down the black out blinders on independent investigative journalistic integrity…this appears to reaffirms what many citizen skeptics have quietly suspected all along…that the OC press are in-bed with jackals, and are running soft cover for the ruling oligarchy’s secretive shenanigans.

    In my humble opinion this represents a disconcerting editorial from VoOC Publisher Norberto Santana Jr…..Befuddling honestly! we desperately need independent over sight to keep the government corruption in check; but yet at the end of the day, let’s not offend our pals over at the BoS.

    • LFOldTimer

      It bothers me that VOC did not appeal the court’s ruling to exclude the Boys Town emails from disclosure.

      • TigerD

        LFOldtimer, Is there anyway to talk to you? Just not on a post

        • verifiedsane

          Be weary of these kinds of fishing expeditions OldTimer…I would definitely make sure any correspondence with this person (or persons) is done through anonymous means….

        • LFOldTimer

          If you have something to say to me you can say it right here on the board. I’d tell you the same thing on the board as I’d say to your face. If it has to do with the public good everyone should know about it.

          • TigerD

            Its not fishing, I just wanted advice from someone that seems to really care about the OC.

          • LFOldTimer

            Oh, you want advice?

            My advice would be to find someone who specializes in the area that you need advice in and go buy an hour of his time.

            My advice is no better than the next guy’s. Sometimes it’s worse.

          • TigerD

            Thank you, appreciate you taking the time to write back.

      • verifiedsane

        Remember, that $121,000 was just for reimbursement of VoOC legal fees…how much was spend defending the indefensible by the county…3, 5, or 10 times that amount…not surprisingly, no one in the press has asked or even reported on that end of this public travesty…so we the citizens will probably never know…now that’s some government transparency….