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Questions continue to swirl around the political nature of a taxpayer-funded District Attorney event last week, where speakers made a point of criticizing DA Todd Spitzer’s election opponent – prompting public praise at the event from Spitzer’s second-in-command.

The event was held at the DA’s headquarters, after an original site for a victims memorial was switched from Mason Regional Park in Irvine to a corner of the DA’s headquarters across the street from the Sheriff’s Department headquarters and the county jail.

The original site was publicly abandoned by Spitzer this month after he acknowledged he did not fundraise close to the million-dollar budget to build a victims memorial in Orange County. 

Yet moving the site to the DA’s headquarters is raising questions about sponsoring events that can easily turn political. 

County Supervisor Katrina Foley says that’s exactly what happened last week.

She felt there was blatant political campaigning at the DA’s headquarters, during the recent victims rally event that was organized, promoted and broadcast online with taxpayer resources.

“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.

“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.

At the DA event last week, speakers criticized Spitzer’s election opponent Peter Hardin, saying he “disgusts” them, “spat” on crime victims, 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, Shawn Nelson.

“Thank you so much for those words,” responded Nelson, the chief assistant district attorney, who has filed paperwork to fundraise for a potential run for judge next year in Orange County Superior Court.

The 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.

Hardin says the DA broke the law.

Spitzer hasn’t responded to messages for comment, though his campaign released a statement saying the crime victims speaking at the rally had a First Amendment right to speak.

“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.

“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.”

DA Todd Spitzer speaks at the DA’s Office annual crime victims’ rally on Monday, April 20, 2021. Credit: Orange County DA's Office

Spitzer’s opponent says the DA broke the law.

“Using or even permitting public resources to be used for political activity is against the law, a law the District Attorney is responsible for enforcing,” Hardin said in a statement.

“Here the DA himself used public resources to organize a rally wherein his allies lobbed a number of misguided attacks against a political opponent. That’s not just inappropriate, it’s illegal,” Hardin added.

Paul Wilson, whose wife Christy was killed in OC’s deadliest mass shooting, says the DA’s taxpayer-funded rally was entirely political.

“The entire thing had one intention and that was politics, period!” said Wilson, who previously supported Spitzer’s 2018 campaign for DA when he promised to clean up corruption.

The rally, Wilson said, “was just a drive to raise funds and make non-victims think Spitzer was really a voice for victims.”

“That’s a slap in the face of victims,” he added.

State law says it’s illegal for government officials “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.

District attorneys apparently don’t really enforce this law.

“Any DA can prosecute a public entity for misusing public funds, in any county… but no cases have to our knowledge and research ever been conducted,” said Jay Wierenga, spokesman for the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

The commission noted that in a letter to leaders in the state Legislature, asking for more authority for the commission to enforce such laws, though it hasn’t gained traction, he added.

Foley, a Democrat who was recently elected as county supervisor, said she reached out to Spitzer after the rally and expressed “concern” about what happened.

“I felt like, because I was present, people might criticize me for being part of something like that,” Foley said.

“So I’m hopeful that that doesn’t happen again.”

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 ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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