Orange County Auditor-Controller Eric Woolery died Wednesday evening, according to a County spokeswoman.
“We believe it was natural causes at this time,” County Spokeswoman Molly Nichelson said Thursday. Danielle Katz Ortiz, the Auditor-Controller’s communications manager, said in a later email that an autopsy will be performed to determine the cause of death.
Woolery, 53, served as the County’s top watchdog, which led to clashes with the Orange County Board of Supervisors over Woolery’s questioning of County-funded mailers, abuse of a discount program at a County-owned hotel in Dana Point and former Supervisor Shawn Nelson’s pension payout.
Woolery also wrote a Voice of OC opinion article in 2015 about Nelson’s pension and the auditor-controller’s right to investigate Nelson’s pension payout.
“I was elected by the voters of Orange County to be their fiscal watchdog,” Woolery wrote.
“That’s exactly what I’ve been striving to do this past year by questioning a very suspicious pension payout, nearly a quarter million dollars, with no back up, to Supervisor Shawn Nelson — who has very publicly stated he does not want to take a pension.”
Woolery halted payments for the county-funded mailers April 2016, but reinstated the payments two weeks later after a meeting with County Counsel Leon Page.
The mailers in question featured Supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Andrew Do.
Since being elected as auditor-controller in 2015, County Supervisors attempted to take away some of Woolery’s powers.
At a June 2018 County Board meeting, Supervisors gave themselves control over the financial checks and balances when they immediately took control of the county’s internal auditors — who are watchdogs against fraud and waste in county departments.
Under pressure from the state Legislature, the internal auditors began reporting to Woolery in 2015 until last year’s switch.
Woolery won re-election June 2018 with 74 percent of the vote. But he has repeatedly drawn the ire of Nelson and Do since he took office in early 2015, including Woolery’s challenging the legality of pension payments to Nelson and supervisors’ taxpayer funded mailers to voters that prominently feature the supervisors.
Do and Nelson led the charge to take away funding from Woolery’s office last year and roughly two-thirds of the auditor-controller’s staff.
Nelson, who termed out as supervisor, now works for the District Attorney’s office.
Former Supervisor Todd Spitzer, now district attorney, was the lone dissenter among supervisors attempts to take over Woolery’s office.
“Eric was such a good friend, father, and public servant. I am shocked by the news of his passing and I send my deepest sympathies to his wife Lisa, his children, and all of his many loved ones,” Spitzer said in a Thursday news release.
Bartlett, now chair of the County Supervisors, said in a Twitter statement, Woolery “was a great public servant who fought tirelessly for government accountability and transparency.”
“We will always remember his sense of humor, dedication to the County and fiscal ‘watchdog’ legacy,” reads Bartlett’s Thursday Tweet.
Spitzer, in a text message to Voice of OC, noted the importance of having an independent auditor-controller.
“Having an elected official in that position (auditor-controller) is critical. Allows a strong and firm voice. Makes it tougher for bureaucrats to push that person around,” Spitzer said.
Since Woolery’s death, Salvador Lopez is now the interim auditor-controller. Supervisors can appoint someone to fill the vacant auditor-controller position, according to state law.
“The appointee shall hold office for the unexpired term or until the first Monday after January 1st succeeding the next general election,” reads the law. That would be Jan. 4, 2021.
“An appointed official should only be short term and agree not to run,” reads Spitzer’s text. “The voters have a right to choose. Not allow someone to be anointed.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously added the word “not” to Spitzer’s quote about appointees being short term. Voice of OC regrets the error.