Retired Orange County Superior Court Judge Clay Smith and investigators, hired by Anaheim officials to root out corruption at city hall, are warning against scaling down their corruption probe.
It’s a warning that Anaheim city council members may not like to hear, given that earlier this month they asked for a reduced scope, voicing cost concerns – something that is ringing community alarm bells.
Pulling Back Anaheim’s Curtain
A behind the scenes look at the happiest place on Earth amid one of the largest corruption scandals to rock Orange County.
Smith told Voice of OC that community concerns about shortchanging the probe are well founded.
[Read: Is Anaheim Shortchanging its Commissioned Corruption Probe?]
“We’re going back with the same scope, we’re going back with the same budget,” Smith said in a phone interview last Tuesday.
“We’re going to be as polite and diplomatic and respectful as we possibly can. But we’re going to do our best to make the point that this has got to remain independent, or there is no point and that requires the same scope and the same budget that we’ve asked for.”
Smith has presided over two decades worth of cases as a judge but never presided over a municipal corruption probe.
Last August, he was tasked by Anaheim City Council Members with overseeing a commissioned investigation to root out alleged corruption at city hall after federal agents in May revealed their own fiery corruption probe into the inner workings of OC’s largest city and the outsized influence the Disneyland resort industry and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce has on officials.
[Read: FBI Reveals What Many Anaheim Residents Felt For Years, City Hall is Run By The Chamber of Commerce]
Since then, investigators have publicly told officials that they potentially found criminal violations.
Smith went into more detail with Voice of OC about what investigators are evaluating.
“I’ll just say that we have not been able to fully explain the handling of funds and we’re just looking into that very earnestly. It may turn out that there was no misconduct or it may turnout money was mishandled or misused. We’re just going to have to wait and see,” Smith said.
“The only way here to do the right
thing is to let us finish the job.”
He would not clarify if he was referring to city money or provide further specifics on the potential criminal violations.
Smith also said the Orange County District Attorney’s office has reached out to them asking to be kept in the loop if they discover any potential criminal conduct and want to know sooner rather than later.
The judge as well as the investigators from the JL Group hired by the city also have told Voice of OC that they have found issues that may not be illegal but are highly questionable.
“One of the things within the JL group scope was to make recommendations to the city for possible reforms and so I certainly knew that at the end of the process, there will be things that we’re going to recommend reform and that certain practices not be allowed to occur even if they don’t constitute criminal violations,” Smith said.
He would not say what those recommendations would be at this time.
Despite this, Anaheim’s newly elected council members – a mix of of politicians who promised reform and others backed by the interests touched on by the FBI – have publicly pressed investigators to narrow the scope of the investigation before they’d spend more on the probe.
Anaheim’s new city council members all cited cost concerns for their hesitation but didn’t raise similar concerns when voting to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on palm tree lighting or police dogs since they were inaugurated on Dec. 6.
Smith warns that if the investigation’s scope is narrowed a “cloud of suspicion” will continue to hang over city hall and the officials elected to run Anaheim.
“There will always be those who say the city curtailed the investigation,” Smith said. “Mayor (Ashleigh) Aitken ran on a platform of transparency and I’m sure that they all want to clear the air and put it behind them and move forward.”
Aitken’s father, Wylie, chairs the Voice of OC’s board of directors.
Smith said he is certain the council will do the right thing.
“The only way here to do the right thing is to let us finish the job.”
Smith also has publicly committed that the investigators wouldn’t ask for more money again if they received the additional funding and has promised a final report by July 1.
“We understand that this is our first and last opportunity to ask for more time and more money,” he said.
Smith, 72, was born in Lynwood and grew up in La Mirada before he moved to Reno in 1965 after his dad got a promotion to work as a manager at a Cadillac dealership.
Growing up watching the TV series Perry Mason, Smith was inspired to become a lawyer and practiced law for 20 years before being appointed as a OC Superior Court judge where he served for another two decades.
“As a lawyer, you are always advocating somebody’s point of view,” Smith said.
“And I enjoyed that. But I really much prefer the role of the neutral. You don’t care about anyone’s point of view. You just want it to come out correctly. You want to find the right answer. That’s really one of the best things about being a judge.”
Smith served as a county municipal judge for a year in 1997 and then as a Superior Court judge till 2017.
He presided over criminal cases, family law matters as well as personal injury and professional negligence cases.
This included a verdict against the Orange County Transportation Authority after an elderly woman was seriously injured after the driver failed to secure her wheelchair correctly.
Following retirement, Smith went on to work for Judicate West part-time to stay active in his profession and balance time with his family.
He said his role as the neutral arbiter in the Anaheim corruption investigation is to be a buffer between the investigators Jeff Love and Jeff Johnson and the city council and ensure the probe is independent.
[Read: Meet the Investigators Trying to Shine a Light on Corruption at Anaheim City Hall]
Smith also ensures the investigators stay on track and do not exceed the scope of the investigation.
“If there was no buffer between the city and JL Group, the JL Group would be taking marching orders from the city. But they’re not. They’re taking their marching orders from me,” Smith said.
“Decisions that are made about should we look at this, should we look at that, should we go down this avenue, they’re not turning to the city for direction. Jeff Love, Jeff Johnson, and I make those decisions together.”
Every week, Smith meets with the investigation team for a couple of hours where they tell him about the people they’ve interviewed and strategize a game plan for the investigators moving forward.
Both Love and Johnson said Smith is very balanced and is doing an excellent job in the role.
“He’s very, very measured, and he gives good advice,” Johnson said. “He keeps us in line.”
The previous council picked Smith – who had the lowest fee out of a group of 6 retired judges – to oversee the investigation. The budget for his fee is currently set at $100,000.
He bid to work on the investigation because he found it interesting.
“I’ve lived in Orange County for almost 40 years now. Everybody that’s been in Orange County for a long period of time understands the importance economically of the Angels and Disney to the community,” he said.
For Smith, being a good judge and a neutral on an investigation like this means being independent and objective.
“If you can’t give both sides of a particular issue a totally fair shot, because your independence is somehow compromised, then you shouldn’t be in this role,” he said.
“We’re just trying to gather all the facts and see where it takes us.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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