OC Auditor-Controller Eric Woolery died at his home in Kansas last week, not Orange County, his office’s spokeswoman confirmed Friday in response to an inquiry from Voice of OC.
A county statement last week that Woolery apparently died in Orange was not corrected until Voice of OC inquired Friday afternoon. The cause of death still is unknown, said Danielle Katz Ortiz, the public information officer for the Auditor-Controller’s Office.
Woolery sold one of his two homes in Orange, Ortiz said Friday. The family moved to Kansas City in late November and December, according to blog posts by Woolery’s wife, Lisa Woolery.
Eric Woolery would essentially “super commute,” spending a “couple weeks here, a couple weeks there,” Ortiz said.
“It’s a big loss for everyone,” Ortiz said of Woolery’s death.
Orange County’s chief spokeswoman Molly Nichelson said last week that Woolery had apparently died of natural causes at his home in Orange. The statement had not been corrected as of Friday afternoon, more than a week later.
In response to Voice of OC’s inquiries Friday, officials confirmed he died outside California.
“Turns out, apparently Mr. Woolery passed away out of state,” said Sgt. Joses Walehwa, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department. OC coroner officials apparently were not involved in the investigation, he said.
Woolery’s death is being investigated in a suburban Kansas City, Kansas county were he was living with his family and had established an accounting business.
Officials in Johnson County, Kansas confirmed an active inquiry into his death.
Its chief medical examiner, Dr. Diane C. Peterson, “said that currently that it’s an open investigation,” said Barbara Mitchell, Johnson County’s public information officer.
Asked where and how Woolery died, Mitchell said, “At this point currently there are no details available” until the investigation is completed.
Woolery died on Wednesday, Aug. 7, according to OC officials.
On Friday, Nichelson said her statement about him dying in Orange was based on information from the Auditor-Controller’s office, and that Voice of OC’s inquiry was the first she had heard that the information was inaccurate.
“My information came from the folks at the Auditor-Controller’s Office. And that was the information they had at the time too,” Nichelson said in a phone interview Friday afternoon.
When Woolery died, Nichelson spoke with Ortiz and “we were going off the information we had at the time,” Nichelson said. “If there’s something that needs to be corrected, I’ll chat with their office and get it corrected, but that’s the information we knew at the time.”
Ortiz said Nichelson is “correct. That was the info we had at the time.”
Asked where that information came from, Ortiz wrote in a statement, “There was some initial confusion about whether he died at home in Orange or at his vacation home in Kansas, and was simply a result of the hectic moments in the immediate aftermath of his passing.”
“Any misunderstanding was completely unintentional,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz, who helped arrange Wednesday’s services for Woolery in Orange County, confirmed Woolery’s remains were cremated in Kansas before the OC services.
Woolery served as Orange County’s top financial watchdog, which led to clashes with the county Board of Supervisors over his questioning of their taxpayer-funded mailers promoting supervisors during their re-elections, management abuse of a discount program at a county-owned hotel in Dana Point, and former Supervisor Shawn Nelson’s retroactive pension payout.
“I was elected by the voters of Orange County to be their fiscal watchdog,” Woolery wrote in a 2015 Voice of OC opinion piece asserting the auditor-controller’s right to investigate Nelson’s pension payment.
Things took a turn for Woolery last year. In January 2018, the county’s former director of internal audit filed a lawsuit alleging Woolery misused taxpayer money by having a government employee drive his young children to and from school and other activities during work hours and babysit them at the office.
Woolery declined to dispute the lawsuit’s claims at the time, while calling the lawsuit “a media stunt” to “bilk the taxpayer into a settlement.”
And in June 2018, county supervisors moved to take control of many of Woolery’s powers, including transferring the county’s internal auditors who are watchdogs against fraud and waste. The supervisors also moved forward with efforts to take over 287 accounting and financial control staff positions from Woolery’s office, and cut $1 million from Woolery’s budget.
In the ensuing months, Woolery and his family made plans to move to the Kansas City area where he was born, according to state records and blog posts by Lisa Woolery.
In August 2018, Eric Woolery registered as a certified public accountant (CPA) in Kansas and Missouri, according to state records. The Kansas City area is in both states.
The address on his accounting license is a 6-bedroom residential home in Stilwell, an unincorporated community in Johnson County, Kansas. The real estate website Zillow listed the home as “Pending Sale” in late October and sold in December.
Also in October, Eric Woolery registered an accounting business in Kansas known as Woolery CPA LLC, according to state records reviewed by Voice of OC. It was registered to an office suite in Johnson County’s largest city, Overland Park.
The family started their move to the Kansas City area in late November, and had settled in by December, according to a blog Lisa Woolery wrote about the family move.
“Over time I realized that the Orange County I grew up in was no longer the Orange County where I wanted to raise my kids. Quaint suburbia surrounded by citrus groves was gone, and with it an innocence had been replaced by the massive sprawling big city culture of Los Angeles,” Lisa Woolery wrote on her blog, titled My California Exodus.
“Previously, my husband had introduced me to his hometown of Kansas City, and after many trips to this cosmopolitan mid-western gem, my dreams of becoming a Kansas Citian became hard to ignore.”
In her first post, on Nov. 29, Lisa Woolery said she and her daughter had just left their home in Orange County for their move, with her husband and son planning to follow a week later.
“Today I left California, for good. I am no longer a resident of California,” she wrote, adding she said goodbye to her husband and son “who are following in a week with a U-Haul.”
Lisa Woolery continued to write blog posts about her life in Kansas City area with her husband, including two weeks ago when she wrote he had helped with a shopping trip.
Efforts to reach Lisa Woolery by phone Friday were unsuccessful. She was traveling on a plane, Ortiz said.
In a press statement after her husband’s death, Lisa Woolery said, “Since I was 14 years old, Eric has been my love. He was the very best man, brave, tenacious, a righter of wrongs. He lives on in our children, Liam and Kate and leaves behind the glue that will bind our family. Please pray for us until we will see him again in heaven.”
Eric Woolery was born in Kansas City, Missouri and moved with his family to Orange County when he was in high school, according to his official biography.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.