Santana: Top DA Spitzer Aide Gets $75K Settlement To Drop Corruption Allegations

Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

Subscribe now to receive emails letting you know about his latest work.

One of Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s top aides – possibly his longest-serving executive aide – was quietly paid out a $75,000 settlement last fall after agreeing to drop public corruption allegations against Spitzer and remaining silent.

Melanie Eustice, who served as Spitzer’s chief of staff as a county supervisor and then followed him to the DA’s office after he was elected in 2018 as his Chief of Administration and Public Affairs, abruptly left the DA’s office in October after a series of private confrontations with Spitzer.

Neither Eustice nor Spitzer will talk about what happened.

Yet her October 2019 legal claim against the County of Orange told a disturbing tale.
“Ms. Eustice has endured an abusive work environment in Mr. Spitzer’s office including angry outbursts, emotional abuse, bullying, shaming, and control tactics. When Mr. Spitzer could not compel Ms. Eustice to do his bidding in connection with the RFP (Request for Proposals) and PRA (Public Records Act), he erupted in a fit of rage charging at her and screaming, “get the fuck out of here,” read the Oct. 23 claim filed with the County of Orange and obtained by Voice of OC through a Public Records Act request.

“Ms. Eustice was terminated in retaliation for her complaints concerning illegal behavior and for refusing to participate in activities that would result in a violation of law,” her claim stated.
Spitzer vehemently disagreed with Eustice that his actions to share public bid information with a potential vendor prior to official publication was illegal.

Eustice was a close confidante to Spitzer for years, coming onto his staff shortly after he started his second run as county supervisor back in 2013 as a communications manager, dealing with the press.

She took over as Spitzer’s chief of staff in 2017, after the abrupt departure of Spitzer’s then chief of staff, Irvine Councilman Jeff Lalloway who went to work with Spitzer as a potential heir apparent but ended up leaving shortly after he arrived because the two didn’t click.

When Spitzer assumed office as District Attorney in January 2019, Eustice came over with him as one of his top executive managers.

By July, she would announce a run for state assembly against embattled Dana Point Republican State Assemblyman Bill Brough, who has been accused of harassment.

“After hearing the numerous allegations swarming around Assemblyman Brough, I can no longer stand by. I’m stepping up to be a voice, yet again, for the voiceless to say, ‘enough.’ We need change and I’m stepping up not just for women, but for every parent who has a daughter in the workplace. Assemblymember Brough’s alleged conduct is not only disgusting but it’s also unacceptable,” wrote Eustice in a July 11 email announcement of her campaign.

Eustice touted her connection to the DA’s office throughout her campaign, even getting endorsements from some of the same victims’ rights groups that have often supported Spitzer. She also shared Spitzer’s political consultant, John Thomas.

“I’m proud to announce my run for the 73rd Assembly District. My work throughout the years as an elected school trustee, chief of staff to an Orange County Board of Supervisor and now fighting for public safety from the District Attorney’s office has prepared me to represent the people of the 73rd District,” Eustice wrote on July 11.

Yet some observers wonder whether that run ultimately put her on a collision course with Spitzer.

On Sept. 10, Spitzer sent out a formal office notice to all DA officials running for public office.
“Under no circumstances may campaign time be taken as flex time or “off the books” time based on hours worked in self-reported time,” read the memo.

“At no time will any candidate or elected official be out of the office without a direct supervisors being able to explain where the employee is and how the employee is using their own time to conduct campaign activity outside of this office,” Spitzer wrote.

To read the Sept. 10 letter, click here.

In Eustice’s legal claim against the County of Orange, her attorney wrote that “Ms. Eustice is investigating potential claims for violation of Labor Code sections 1101 (forbidding employee from becoming a candidate for public office).

Eustice’s last email update went out Oct. 14.

Her assembly campaign would later collapse and she would not make the final list of candidates certified for the Dec. 6 deadline.

According to series of public records reviewed by Voice of OC, including contracts and email correspondence, it’s clear that after a confrontation Eustice ended her tenure with Spitzer on Oct. 18.

In legal claims to the County of Orange, Eustice said she was fired that day after blowing the whistle on illegal activities by Spitzer.

However, in later email correspondence to Eustice’s lawyers, County Counsel Leon Page disputed that, arguing that she was still employed and required to report for work.

After ensuring negotiations, according to the public records recently released by the County of Orange, both sides agreed a week later, on Oct. 25, 2019, to the following terms.

Eustice would be paid what was characterized as a three-months severance of $65, 091.

Her separation would be called just that, not a termination or a resignation.

An additional $75,000 would be paid to Eustice to settle her legal claim.

Eustice and Spitzer would both be restrained from public comments about the other by a “mutual non-disparagement” agreement.

There would be no future restriction for employment for Eustice at the County of Orange.

In addition, Eustice would get a favorable employment reference from Spitzer’s office and the terms of their agreement would stay confidential.

So today, if you ask about Melanie Eustice at the Orange County District Attorney’s office, the only thing you’ll hear back is the following statement – which reads: “On Friday, Oct. 18, Melanie Eustice voluntarily agreed to separate from county employment and is eligible for rehire.”

Wow.

If Eustice was wrong about her legal advice to Spitzer, why would county officials agree to have taxpayers pay her nearly $150,000?

And then, boom, that payout total triggered my memory, of Christine Richters.

Richters was a former Spitzer aide when he served as a county supervisor who also came out with troubling allegations against Spitzer in a public claim.

She was eventually paid out $150,000 to settle her claims and remain quiet.
Pattern?

To make it even more odd, the person who argued for Spitzer in that case to reporters…was Eustice herself.

And the same lawyer that represented Richters, was Devon Lyon, who now just ended up representing Eustice, in her own settlement from the County of Orange.

Taxpayers should do the rest of the math themselves.