Santana: Death of OC Auditor Controller Underscores Why Public Access to Elected Officials’ Calendars Matters

OC Auditor-Controller's Office

Eric Woolery was Orange County's elected auditor-controller until he died on Aug. 7, 2019. He is pictured here in a video by the Auditor-Controller's Office.

The mysterious and abrupt death of Orange County Auditor Controller Eric Woolery in Kansas last month underscores why public access to the official calendars of elected officials is so important.

It now seems clear – according to several sources and public records – that Woolery wasn’t showing up much in the office in the months preceding his death this August.

Many of the public sector executives who worked with Woolery said they got texts and emails from him, even talked on the phone recently.

But few saw him much in the last few months.

And few seemed to know he had established another life, out-of-state, in Kansas.

Indeed, it now seems possible that after Woolery got scorched by Orange County supervisors in a nasty, June 2018 vote – yes, the very same politicians who lauded him in death last month through glowing press releases and dais statements – that they not only succeeded in their political goal of silencing Woolery but actually broke the man.

That month, Orange County supervisors voted to gut Woolery’s department a week after he won re-election with 74 percent of the vote – a strong public endorsement of Woolery’s watchdog approach to the job, years into a public and tense battle against the entire county board of supervisors over his oversight of the legality of their spending.

Woolery, a conservative Republican from Orange with deep roots in the OC GOP, was a radical departure from the elected technocrat-approach of David Sundstrom, who took over the auditor controller office in 1996, appointed by supervisors in the wake of the county bankruptcy.

Sundstrom was elected in his own right in 1998.

Yet given his weak position as an independent elected, where Internal Audit functions were already transferred under the board of supervisors, Sundstrom rarely opposed the board of supervisors.

Even when he politely asked for Internal Audit functions back in 2006, supervisors still balked.

Sundstrom eventually left in 2011 to become the Auditor Controller of Sonoma County before later retiring.

After a series of interim auditor controllers – largely functioning as subordinate to the board of supervisors, Woolery won election in June 2014 against four challengers with just over 57 percent of the vote. County supervisors turned over Internal Audit back to Woolery the next year.

Yet right away, Woolery sent a message to county supervisors that he would approach his job as a government watchdog, someone who was elected to watch over the bills, not just approve and pay invoices.

County supervisors, then and now, viewed the Auditor Controller as a “cash register” that is there to simply pay, not question, bills.

Woolery challenged that view.

He hired a robust legislative and government affairs staff to radically expand the public’s right to know about county finances, co-sponsoring town halls like the Accounting for Activists event series he did with Voice of OC to break down and analyze county finances.

At many county public affairs events, you would often see a table of executives from the OC Auditor Controller’s office – an unusual PR presence for what was traditionally a shy, technocratic elected office.

Called “Team Fluff” by some auditor controller staff – as cited in an ongoing wrongful termination lawsuit against Woolery and the County of Orange – the public affairs staff made county supervisors uncomfortable.

Orange County Grand Jurors in a recent report reviewed the public affairs staff, after hearing complaints about it from county supervisors, and concluded that the outreach effort didn’t go beyond government norms.

Woolery clearly saw himself as a conservative activist auditor, actively questioning the questionable.

He didn’t see himself as a cash register for county supervisors.

Woolery got in the way.

In his first term, Woolery publicly questioned in 2016 paying bills for county mailers that looked a lot like campaign mail as sent out by county supervisors Andrew Do and Lisa Bartlett.

Woolery also challenged then-County Supervisor Shawn Nelson’s odd enrollment in the county pension system after a very public effort to get out of the pension system years earlier.

In fact, blocking the county payment to the retirement system for Nelson got Woolery in trouble with then-DA Tony Rackauckas – who according to a recent grand jury report dispatched investigators to search Woolery’s office. Rackauckas, who was pretty lax on any sort of official misdeeds, considered embezzlement charges against Woolery for standing in the way of the payment.

In 2016, Woolery also angered county officials when he publicized a county Internal Audit that raised questions about discounts for public workers and their friends at a county-owned hotel in Dana Point Harbor.

County officials, used to keeping Internal Audits, internal, were – and still are – furious.

Auditors weren’t supposed to reach out to media when they found questionable expenses.

Woolery did.

He saw it as part of his job.

And it drove county supervisors crazy.

On June 26, 2018, supervisors took aim.

That day, they took over most of the auditing functions and staff of the office.

The 14 budgeted staff of the Internal Audit Division would be transferred back from Woolery’s office to county supervisors on a 4-1 vote, with Supervisor Todd Spitzer opposing.

County supervisors also moved forward with efforts to take over 287 accounting and financial control staff positions from Woolery’s office. At the request of Supervisor Shawn Nelson, supervisors also effectively cut funding for twelve employees (Team Fluff) in Woolery’s office, totaling about $1 million in the upcoming fiscal year.

According to several of those close to him, the June 2018 supervisors’ vote hit Woolery hard.

After the vote, the public affairs team was wound down, redirected toward overseeing the low-profile wind-down of redevelopment agencies across the county.

Voice of OC County Reporter Nick Gerda reported that by August 2018, Eric Woolery registered as a certified public accountant (CPA) in Kansas and Missouri, according to state records.

Gerda noted that in the ensuing months, Woolery and his family apparently made plans to move to the Kansas City area where he was born, according to state records and blog posts by his wife, Lisa Woolery.

The family started their move to the Kansas City area in late November, and had settled in by December, according to a blog post Lisa Woolery wrote and Gerda quoted 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.

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.”

Was Orange County’s Auditor Controller now essentially a Kansas City area resident?

The first comments coming out of the county about Woolery’s death came from County Spokesperson Molly Nichelson, who indicated he died at his home in Orange.

That information apparently came from the Auditor Controller public affairs staff.

Woolery’s Public Information Officer, Danielle Katz Ortiz later told Voice of OC that Woolery would “super commute” spending some weeks in Orange County and some weeks in the Kansas City area.

If reporters had an opportunity to regularly review public calendars in Orange County, they would have seen that the Auditor Controller was living, at least part-time, in the Kansas City area.

Journalists examining those public records also would have been able to easily quantify any drop in public affairs events after the June 2018 vote by county supervisors and probe into how the community watchdog version of the County Auditor Controller had indeed been silenced.

They could have asked questions about the implications of elected officials super-commuting from other states.

Currently, when asked for their official calendars, most local elected officials hide behind a 1991 California Supreme Court decision that allowed then-Gov. George Deukmejain to keep his official calendar secret from a LA Times request to see five-years worth of records.

“Our county counsel has advised the supervisors not to release our calendars,” responded County Supervisors Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett when asked about the issue. No other county supervisor would comment publicly on why they keep their public calendars secret.

In the Times Mirror 1991 decision, judges largely stood with the executive branch argument for exemption from the state Public Records Act centered largely around the governor’s safety as well as the guarding his deliberations.

While I can understand confidentially – for safety – regarding a public officials’ future calendar, I don’t for past appointments.

And arguing deliberative advantages to keep meetings secret makes even less sense in a special interest society, where we should know exactly who met with whom before and after critical public votes.

Most importantly, just because officials aren’t required by law to share their public calendars doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.

When an elected official that supposedly represents you is too afraid to tell you who they meet with, it should trigger alarm bells.

Woolery’s Kansas residence raises yet another critically important reason why public officials should keep public calendars.

We all as citizens have a great responsibility to keep an eye on the activities of our elected officials – often for their own good.

President Ronald Reagan’s great quote, “Trust but Verify” reveals a key aspect to democratic government.

We must be able to judge our public officials based on what they do, not what we hope they do or much less what they tell us they do.