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Orange County supervisors Tuesday expanded an upcoming county law requiring drug and alcohol programs to report their ownership and affiliated businesses to a new countywide registry. Not registering could be punished as a misdemeanor.
The program, which was proposed by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas in the weeks running up to his Nov. 6 re-election bid, would have the county Health Care Agency set up and manage the registry, along with outreach and education to drug and alcohol programs about the fact the registry exists and is required.
In a break with their usual practice, the three supervisors who approved the ordinance – Andrew Do, Lisa Bartlett, and Michelle Steel – did it Tuesday without a cost estimate or funding identified to pay for the county staff time and outreach.
And in a dramatic moment at the end of the discussion, Do, the supervisors’ chairman, accused Supervisor Todd Spitzer of potential “extortionary tactics” to get campaign money from a county contractor’s lobbying firm.
Tuesday’s vote was an expansion of a version of the ordinance Do, Bartlett, and Steel approved three weeks earlier that was limited to unincorporated areas outside of cities, which are home to just 4 percent of the county’s more than 3 million residents.
After the limited scope was criticized, Rackauckas and the three supervisors who have endorsed him changed the proposal Tuesday to apply countywide.
The funding source is “not identified,” said Richard Sanchez, director of the county’s Health Care Agency, who would oversee the registry.
“Would it be too much trouble to just get the cost clarified?” Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who voted against the ordinance, asked the other three supervisors. “No one knows. No one can tell us.”
Do, Bartlett, and Steel’s vote Tuesday included direction to have the county Health Care Agency find a way to use existing dollars for the registry’s first year. County staff would study the costs during that year, which could form the basis of a fee that would be charged in the future to companies that register.
“The cost is a little staff time, and first-class postage,” said Bartlett. Spitzer said county health officials will now have to “steal” money from other programs to fund the registry.
Rackauckas is in a tight re-election battle against Spitzer, and was endorsed for his re-election by the three supervisors who voted for his registration ordinance: Do, Bartlett, and Steel. Nelson endorsed Spitzer.
The registry proposal came amid growing attention on rehab homes, including certain operators engaging in fraud, taking advantage of people with addictions, and causing problems for neighbors with seeming impunity.
Rackauckas publicly proposed the registry earlier this month, saying it would help with prosecutions of operators who break the law.
Rackauckas’ office held its first meeting with the county Health Care Agency director, who would be in charge of implementing the registry, on Oct. 1, ahead of placing it on the Oct. 16 supervisors’ agenda for its first approval.
The state already has a registry of sober living homes, though the county ordinance goes a step further by requiring each company’s owners to list all organizations and facilities they also own, manage, or invest in. The ordinance calls these “affiliated” entities and facilities.
The county ordinance was modeled after laws that apply to skilled nursing facilities, in which the legislature determined conflicts of interests where a business would be self-dealing could be harmful to patients, said Tracy Hughes, a senior deputy district attorney with the DA’s Consumer Protection Unit.
A real-world OC prosecution involving such conflicts came in a case where a rehab home doctor also had an ownership interest with a lab where he sent urine samples for testing. Hughes said.
The doctor, Carlos Montano, pled guilty and was sentenced in July to a year in jail over alleged $22-million urine test billing scheme prosecutors said ran through OC sober living homes, according to the LA Times.
Hughes noted a federal law known as the Stark Law makes it illegal for doctors to refer Medicare or Medicaid patients to hospitals, labs and other entities that they or their immediate family have financial interests in.
The idea with the county ordinance is “to require a little more information, to shine a little more light,” Hughes said.
One of the many points of contention Tuesday among supervisors was whether the county would be breaking the law in the way it planned to require a fee for the registrants.
Spitzer wanted to waive attorney-client privilege on a memo on the issue from the county’s attorneys, which Spitzer suggested says the fees would be improper under California’s Proposition 26, which voters approved in 2010. Spitzer’s effort to release the memo failed on a 2-3 vote, with Do, Bartlett, and Steel opposing the memo’s release.
“It is my personal belief that the County is open to significant litigation and that our arguments in the application of a new fee to cover the costs of the registry are weak,” Spitzer said in a news release after the meeting.
“The Board [of Supervisors] needs to resolve the issue of an ongoing fee versus tax before [the county Health Care Agency] invests in an illegal fee program.”
The county ordinance comes back for a final vote by supervisors next week, on Election Day. It would take effect the following day, Nov. 7, according to Nelson.
Do, in his final comments on the ordinance, expressed deep frustration with Spitzer over a memo he distributed to the news media Monday. Do said Spitzer’s memo suggested he, Bartlett and Steel were rushing the ordinance for political purposes.
“This is a very serious indictment – salacious, at a minimum,” Do said of Spitzer’s memo.
“It poses a very difficult question for me in terms of where do we go in terms of protocol and decorum on this dais. When we go into, and impute, motives behind items that we put forth, things that we say on the dais, where does it end?”
Do then accused Spitzer of extorting a county contractor for campaign money, and said the supervisors have a host of disparaging information about each other they could go public with but don’t.
“A month ago, when you first – Supervisor Spitzer, when you first talked about the GTL [inmate] phone contract. And you brought in a bunch of TV [news] people, [a] major news network, to make sure to see you saying very forcefully saying, ‘We’re gonna terminate GTL’s contract today. Immediately. I demand it!’ And then, within days, the lobbyists representing GTL donated what – $40,000, $50,000 to [a] PAC that then sent out mailers on your behalf – in this [election] cycle,” Do said.
“Now, I knew that information. I could have called out the maybe alleged hypocrisy, if not extortionary tactics performed on the dais right here. But I didn’t. And so, I [ask] colleagues, you, again – let’s comport ourselves in a way that dignifies this dais, and not engage in this kind of political stunt,” Do continued, referring to Spitzer’s memo.
“I just wanted to make sure that people don’t think that just because we don’t say things up here, that we don’t have information that we can use every day, in every meeting, to smear each other. Okay?”
In recent months officials have revealed that GTL, also known as Global Tel-Link, potentially jeopardized criminal cases in Orange County by improperly recording phone calls between attorneys and their clients. Spitzer has called for cancelling GTL’s contract, which Do, Bartlett and Steel have not supported.
Nelson and Spitzer raised serious concerns about GTL’s contract in 2014, saying the company charged excessive prices to inmates. Over the next few months, they received maxed-out contributions from the contractor, and when the contract came up for a vote, Nelson and Spitzer both dropped their concerns and voted for the contract.
Voice of OC sought to confirm the newer GTL lobbyist money Do referenced. But public reports show only $5,000 from GTL’s county lobbying firm, Townsend Public Affairs, not the $40,000 or $50,000 Do described. The firm, run by Christopher Townsend, also represents 11 different companies besides GTL in its lobbying of county supervisors.
GTL’s lobbying firm contributed the $5,000 to “Crime Survivors PAC Supporting Spitzer for District Attorney 2018” on Sept. 25. The group was formed to promote Spitzer’s DA run with so-called “independent expenditure” ads, known as “IEs.”
After Voice of OC asked Do and his staff about this, Do revised his comments, saying in a text message: “What I was saying was [GTL’s] lobbyist donated thousands of dollars days after Spitzer’s comments to terminate their contract and similarly about 40 to 50 [thousand] dollars within days from others who also had items before the board to a [PAC] that sent out IEs for him under [Crime Survivors PAC].”
Spitzer didn’t respond to Do during the meeting, and declined to comment about it in person after the public session of the meeting.
But in response to a follow-up call and text message from Voice of OC, Spitzer responded via text: “I have nothing to do with the PAC. Political action committees are completely independent entities.”
“I have been adamant from day one that Global Tel Link violated the terms of its contract and should be terminated immediately. Andrew [Do] has [been] its biggest defender for its [incompetence] and malfeasance,” Spitzer wrote.
“His argument is completely illogical[,] normally you argue that people support you when they give you money. In this case I have no idea who’s giving what and I’m completely against [GTL’s] contract and nothing is going to change.”
Spitzer added, regarding Do: “This is the same guy who is under formal investigation by the [California Fair Political Practices] Commission for inappropriate votes and excessive contributions at [CalOptima].”
Do disputed Spitzer’s statement that he has nothing to do with the PAC.
“Spitzer has been raising money for this PAC for years. Now, miraculously they are independent,” Do said. “People who live in glass house shouldn’t throw stones.”
In response, Spitzer said Do is “trying to distract from his support of a corrupt, incompetent district attorney…It’s that simple and it will be resolved next week at The Ballot Box.”