Top 2019 Stories of Fraud, Waste and Abuse in Orange County

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Voice of OC Reporter Spencer Custodio reviewing public records.

Voice of OC continues to be a media leader in taking an investigative approach to every daily story that examines Orange County’s institutions — from city hall to the county jail, from arts centers to community projects.

And in 2019, Orange County’s nonprofit newsroom yet again set a new standard for uncovering waste and abuse across the county — reporting out a huge batch of accountability stories that readers won’t find anywhere else.

Read the stories below to see our most shared and most read investigative stories of the year. We invite readers to tell us what they think was the most impactful accountability reporting of the year in the comments section.

Santa Ana Approves $25 Million Police Raise, But Not Funding

Feb. 7 Santa Ana City Council members granted raises to police officers and sergeants totaling $25 million over the next two and a half years, without the ability to actually pay the $4.3 million cost for this fiscal year. Read the Story »

JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

The Westminster Police Department.

Westminster Police Chief Placed on Administrative Leave

Feb. 20 Westminster’s police chief, Ralph Ornelas, is on administrative leave pending the results of an outside investigation into “possible policy violations,” according to city officials. Read the Story »

Orange Sued for Allegedly Violating State Election Law

March 5 District elections could be implemented in Orange, following a voting rights lawsuit claiming the city’s current at-large election method disenfranchises the Latino electorate and hinders the election of Latino candidates. Read the Story »

Santa Ana Prepares to Sell Off Dozens of Public Land Parcels for Development

March 8 Council members opted this week to send 23 of the city’s 88 undeveloped, public land parcels out for private real estate bids — continuing a years-long battle between city officials pushing for commercial growth through development and affordable housing advocates who see a built-out city already feeling the effects of gentrification and lack of community spaces. Read the Story »

OC Gives Sheriff Sole Control of Crime Lab, Against National Recommendations

April 10 The move to put the crime lab scientists under a law enforcement agency directly contradicts the national best practices Sheriff Don Barnes and DA Todd Spitzer cited to justify the change. Read the Story »

ADAM ELMAHREK, Voice of OC

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Mayor Pulido sit together at the mayor’s table at the state of the city address in 2014.

Santa Ana Mayor Accused of Personally Renting Out City Property and Interfering in Pot Shop Enforcement

April 24 In sworn testimony, Mayor Miguel Pulido was accused of running a side business personally renting out city-owned property and interfering with police decisions about which illegal pot shops to raid. Pulido denies the allegations. Read the Story »

Police Union Bribery Alleged Under Oath by Two Officials

April 24 Two top Santa Ana officials, including a former police chief, alleged under oath the city’s police union leader engaged in bribery of City Council candidates in 2016, saying Sgt. Gerry Serrano told candidates they had to agree to fire then-Police Chief Carlos Rojas in order to benefit from $400,000 in campaign spending. Read the Story »

Surveillance of Councilman Gathered Evidence of Felony Residence Fraud, DA Said

April 30 It’s first time in years Orange County DA officials have been known to place a politician under surveillance for alleged residency fraud. Read the Story »

Private Anaheim Spending Advisory Group Criticized for Ties to Business and Lack of Transparency

May 7 Anaheim First, a private group that’s going to make spending recommendations to the city on $250 million over the next decade, is facing heavy criticism for a lack of transparency and close business ties.  Read the Story »

Three Westminster Police Officers File More Bullying and Retaliation Claims

May 16 The Westminster Police Department fostered a culture of bullying and retaliation for years under former police chief Ralph Ornelas, three police officers allege in separate legal claims filed against the city. Read the Story »

JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

A sheriff walks into the Orange County Central Men’s jail.

Grand Jury Finds Lack of Sheriff’s Department Oversight in Illegal Jail Phone Recordings

June 4 A lack of oversight allowed the illegal recording of more than 30,000 phone calls between inmates and their attorneys inside county jails, according to the Orange County Grand Jury. Read the Story »

Grand Jury: A Simple Vitals Check Could Prevent Inmate Deaths

June 6 A simple check of inmates’ vital signs as they come into Orange County jail facilities could save their lives, according to a new Orange County Grand Jury report. Read the Story »

Rackauckas Secretly Cleared Deputies Accused of Lying About Informants

June 11 Former District Attorney Tony Rackauckas quietly decided last year to not have prosecutors tell defense attorneys about 10 sheriff deputies suspected of lying about or concealing records about jail informants. Read the Story »

A 2018 election campaign ad for Tony Rackauckas (right), featuring police union president Gerry Serrano. Rackauckas’ office declined a 2011 recommendation by Westminster police to file hit-and-run DUI charges against Serrano, whose wife has worked at the DA’s office since the 1990s.

DA Records Refute Public Reason for Not Prosecuting Santa Ana Police Sgt. Gerry Serrano

July 2 DA records contradict its public statements for why the DA’s office did not file DUI hit-and-run charges against Santa Ana police Sgt. Gerry Serrano, who now leads the city’s influential officers’ union. Read the Story »

Judge Rules Against OC’s Immediate Destruction of Public Records

July 3 Orange County officials likely are breaking the law with a policy allowing immediate destruction of public records and another rule banning public commenters from asking questions of county supervisors or addressing supervisors by name unless they have permission, a Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday. Read the Story »

Irvine Becomes Latest OC City To Adopt Controversial Agenda-Setting Policy

July 11 The Irvine City Council, joining at least six other Orange County cities, has adopted a controversial temporary policy that potentially shuts some council members out of holding public discussions on issues that others on the dais don’t want. Read the Story »

Ex-Santa Ana Police Officer Faces Federal Charges Over Videotaped Beating

Aug. 2 A federal grand jury indicted former Officer Brian Booker with three felonies for allegedly beating a man who was complying with police commands and then lying about it in official reports. Read the Story »

Auditor-Controller Eric Woolery Apparently Died in Kansas, Not OC

Aug. 16 A county statement last week that Woolery apparently died in Orange was not corrected until Voice of OC inquired Friday afternoon. Read the Story »

OC Picks Lowest-Ranked Firm of 5 for Airport Food Spot

Sept. 10 Two supervisors succeeded in overriding the results of a competitive bidding process for a lucrative food spot at John Wayne Airport. Read the Story »

OC Approves New Policy to Immediately Destroy Public Records

Sept. 16 The policy change comes after a judge found the county failed to cite a valid legal justification to destroy records before two years. ACLU lawyers say the new policy goes against the court ruling, while county officials say it’s entirely legal. Read the Story »

OC Moves Millions From Health Agency to Help Cover Sheriff Overruns

Oct. 1 Orange County Sheriff’s officials outspent their revenues by $33 million during this last fiscal year – prompting county officials to pull millions of dollars from other departments like the Health Care Agency to cover the shortfall. Read the Story »

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Orange County Fair and Event Center CEO Kathy Kramer during the Feb. 28, 2019 board meeting.

OC Fairgrounds Gave More than $100K in State Money to Private College while Fairgrounds CEO Sat on the School’s Fundraising Board

Oct. 9 Orange County Fairgrounds CEO Kathy Kramer joined the fundraising board for Vanguard University, a private Christian college, in 2017. Since then, the fairgrounds has paid the school over $100,000 in contracts and sponsorship deals brought up to the fairgrounds Board of Directors by her staff. Read the Story »

OC Fairgrounds CEO Kathy Kramer to Leave Post

Oct. 15 Fair officials confirmed Kramer’s departure, which comes after Voice of OC revealed Kramer sat on the fundraising board for a private college that the fairgrounds has given state money to.  Read the Story »

Criminal Probe Underway Into OC Fire Authority Event With Political Candidates

Oct. 16 The Sheriff’s Department is examining an event at the fire agency’s headquarters that triggered concerns about using government resources for political campaigning. Read the Story »

Joshua Ferguson at Fullerton City Hall.

Fullerton City Officials Target Local Bloggers in Lawsuit, Want to Search Private Computers

Oct. 25 Fullerton city attorneys are asking an OC Superior Court judge to keep local resident Joshua Ferguson, and the blog he writes for, from deleting confidential records and to appoint someone to look through electronics to find the records. Ferguson filed a public records lawsuit against the city last week. Read the Story »

OC Deputy Sheriff Inmate Shackling Policy Draws Public Protests

Nov. 25 On Sunday, a host of community members came out to the Theo Lacy jail facility in Orange to support judicial restraint of a new policy by Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes to  shackle inmates while they are transported to court and while they await court hearings in holding cells. Sheriff Barnes appealed the decision, arguing restraints are safer for inmates being transported to court. An appellate court decision is expected next month. Read the Story »

State Investigating Secretive Group That Routed $170,000 to Santa Ana Election

Nov. 27 The investigation centers on Californians for Ethical Patient Care, which was one of the largest spenders in the Nov. 6 Santa Ana City Council election. Read the Story »

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes at a January 2019 reception outside a Board of Supervisors meeting.

OC Sheriff Kept Evidence Booking Crisis Secret for Almost Two Years

Dec. 4 Sheriff Don Barnes’ spokeswoman declined to say why county supervisors and the district attorney weren’t told of the scale of the issue sooner. Read the Story »

Santa Ana Councilman Publicly Calls Out Dark Money Campaign, Welcomes FBI Interview

Dec. 9 Councilman Juan Villegas, who also works as a special officer at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, is publicly alleging that one the key people behind the controversial 2525 N. Main St. project admitted to him their involvement in a dark money campaign to influence the 2018 Santa Ana city council elections – which involved hiding $320,000 in campaign money through a shell company. Read the Story »

OC Supervisors Accused of Failing to Hold Sheriff’s Department Accountable

Dec. 11 The Sheriff’s Department has faced controversy in recent weeks over revelations that an internal audit found hundreds of cases where deputies failed to follow policy in booking drugs, cash, photos, and videos in criminal cases by the end of their shift. Read the Story »