Former Fullerton City Manager Joe Felz pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of reckless driving involving alcohol that stems from his 2016 election night car crash when he ran it up a curb, over a tree and attempted to drive off on a flat tire.
Felz’ sentence is 40 hours of community service, three years of informal probation, three months in an alcohol program, “victim impact counseling” and a $390 fine and undefined restitution to the city of Fullerton, according to a press release from the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. His guilty plea will also count as a prior conviction should Felz face a driving under the influence charge within the next 10 years.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 9, 2016, after attending election night parties, Felz crashed his minivan within a half a mile of his house in a residential neighborhood north of downtown – driving it over a curb and into a small tree. A witness called police as Felz tried to drive away.
When police responded to the scene, they smelled alcohol on Felz but did not give him a breathalyzer test, according to a memo from Former Police Chief Dan Hughes.
A police sergeant conducted a field sobriety test and apparently determined Felz was not drunk, according to Hughes’ memo.
(Click here to read Chief Dan Hughes’ memo)
Hughes spoke on the phone with Felz that night, according to transcripts of an April public nuisance hearing published by blog Friends for Fullerton’s Future.
“[Felz] had asked the sergeant to speak to me, so I spoke to him … explained to him that we were going to conduct an investigation, that the sergeant believed that he had been drinking alcohol,” Hughes said, according to the transcripts.
“I was going to have the supervisor on scene conduct some preliminary examinations to see if he felt he was under the influence to the level of being in violation of the law,” Hughes said, adding they would have called in the CHP if officers found that Felz was drunk.
Felz initially was charged in March with driving under the influence and a hit and run. The original charges were dismissed when Felz pleaded guilty Tuesday to reckless driving, according to court records.
Leading up to the crash, Felz attended different election parties in downtown Fullerton.
Councilman Bruce Whitaker previously told the Voice of OC that Felz showed up at his election night party at the JP23 BBQ & Smokehouse sports bar. Felz came in between 1 a.m. and 1:30 a.m., bought Whitaker a congratulatory beer and got one for himself.
Councilman Jesus Silva also saw Felz in the area, walking past Bourbon Street bar around 11 p.m., Silva previously said.
The crash awakened a Glenwood Avenue resident, in a residential neighborhood just above downtown. She said she looked outside and saw Felz’ minivan pulling forwards and backwards in an attempt to flee the scene. She said she thought the car was either stolen or a drunk driver and called the police.
Felz managed to get the minivan back onto the street and, even though it had a flat tire, started to drive away and made it a couple hundred feet down Glenwood Avenue before officers arrived. The resident said she could hear the sound of “screeching” rubber as Felz tried to drive away.
The city attorney’s office has denied previous requests by Voice of OC for both the police report on the crash and body camera footage.
The guilty plea comes just over a year after Felz’ retirement from Fullerton, Dec. 13, 2016.
Whitaker previously said Felz called him the day after the crash and said he lost control of the car because he was fidgeting with loose wires underneath the steering column.
Hughes, the former police chief, said — at an unrelated April public nuisance hearing — the election night investigation was handled with “objectivity.” Officers called the chief while they still were at the scene and Hughes spoke by phone with Felz.
“What was special about this was that it involved our city manager. So, in cases that involve a city council member, city manager, another city employee … those are cases that, generally speaking, they would wake a police chief up and let them know about that,” Hughes said during the public nuisance hearing, adding that he explained the protocol to Felz
Hughes said the Fullerton Police Department conducted an investigation of the crash and “it’s that investigation and my notifying the District Attorney’s office and requesting them to investigate that led to him … ultimately being charged.”
“Especially in the city of Fullerton … those type of incidents are going to, what I describe, blow up. No matter what that decision made regarding the outcome of the case. There will be allegations, conspiracy theories and all sorts of information that comes from that,” Hughes said in April.
After the news broke that Felz was given a ride home by the police and not administered a breathalyzer, along with Hughes’ memo surfacing, questions began to swirl around city hall and residents about a possible police cover-up of the incident. There also were questions about an internal affairs investigation surrounding the crash investigation.
According to Tuesday’s press release, the District Attorney’s investigation and “legal review of the conduct” of the Fullerton Police Department tied to the election night car crash still are ongoing.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.