A government-organized victims’ rally last month is now triggering a complaint alleging Orange County DA Todd Spitzer broke the law because speakers at his event criticized his election opponent.
Paul Wilson, an ally-turned-critic of Spitzer’s, says he filed a complaint Monday with the state’s top prosecutor alleging the DA broke the law by allowing speakers to campaign on taxpayer property at an event organized with government resources and employees’ time.
“I write to request you open a criminal and a civil investigation into Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer,” wrote Wilson, whose wife Christy was killed in the 2011 Seal Beach mass shooting.
“Mr. Spitzer has severely abused his public office by using Orange County resources for his campaign,” adds Wilson’s complaint, which Spitzer opponent Peter Hardin’s campaign helped write.
“[Spitzer] has not only used County property for a campaign rally, but also used County staff time for campaign purposes, and County funds to pay for the campaign rally,” the complaint states.
Spitzer says Hardin’s campaign is misinterpreting the law – and the event was not a campaign rally at all.
“Apparently, Peter Hardin does not understand that you don’t tell victims what to say and how to feel. And you certainly don’t trample on their first amendment rights,” Spitzer’s campaign said in a previous statement they reiterated.
“This was in no way a coordinated political event, unlike virtually everything Hardin has said and done since he decided he was going to try to turn Orange County into Los Angeles.”
The Attorney General’s office typically does not comment on complaints, and had no comment about Wilson’s complaint this week.
At the DA event last month, speakers criticized Spitzer’s election opponent Peter Hardin, saying he “spat” on crime victims with his public statements, “disgusts” them, and wants to put criminals ahead of families and public safety; and adding that Spitzer “is just the best.”
Those remarks brought public appreciation at the event from Spitzer’s second-in-command at the DA’s office.
“Thank you so much for those words,” responded Shawn Nelson, the chief assistant district attorney, who is now fundraising for his own run for judge next year in Orange County Superior Court.
The victims’ rally was planned and promoted by the DA’s office, held in a plaza at the DA’s headquarters and broadcast live by the government agency.
State law says it’s illegal for government officials to allow other people to engage in campaign activity on government property – regardless of whether the permission was intentional or “negligent.”
The exact text of the law says it’s unlawful “to use or permit others to use public resources for a campaign activity” or “private gain.”
Each person who “intentionally or negligently” violates that law is subject to a fine of up to $1,000, “plus three times the value of the unlawful use of public resources,” according to the law.
Enforcement can be brought by a county DA or the state Attorney General. When DAs have a conflict of interest in investigating, responsibility generally falls on the Attorney General to enforce the law.
OC Supervisor Katrina Foley, a Democrat and attorney who attended the rally, said she believed political campaigning did take place on county property, though she did not allege any crimes were committed.
“In my 16 years in public office, I just always thought the rule was you can’t campaign from a public building,” Foley said in an interview with Voice of OC the day after the rally.
“There were speakers who were campaigning for him,” said Foley, who was at the event.
“I’m hopeful that the campaign can occur in the community and not in the government buildings,” she added.
Wilson acknowledged that Hardin’s campaign helped write his complaint to the Attorney General.
“They did assist in the writing and wanted me to sign due to the fact that nobody knows the corrupt Todd Spitzer more than I,” Wilson said.
“Especially the way Spitzer has dealt with victim and continues to victimize further with grandstanding events like that… that had nothing to do with victims and a memorial site, it was strictly political and shows how he will trounce victims to make Todd Spitzer look good… he only cares about Todd Spitzer!!”
Spitzer didn’t return a phone call and text message requesting comment for this article.
Next year’s race for Orange County DA is shaping up to be hard fought, with national focus from a movement that’s trying to oust DAs across America and replace them with officials who are promising to reduce mass incarceration and combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
That movement is now trying to kick out Spitzer, the incumbent Republican, who’s staring down a reportedly well-funded opponent in Hardin, a Democrat and former prosecutor.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.