The conclusions of a city investigation into a questionable 2016 sale of public parkland in Westminster have been sitting in limbo for seven months.
It’s now been 18 months since a majority of Westminster City Council members publicly voted to seek answers on the privatization of a public chunk of Liberty Park – expressing shock that such a sale could happen so easily in one of Orange County’s most park poor cities.
Council members voted to formally request county prosecutors to step in.
Yet no one at City Hall or OC District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s office can say where things are at with an internal investigation the city also ordered.
Or what they have found.
[Read: Why Did One of Orange County’s Most Park Poor Cities Quietly Sell Off a Slice of Its Own Public Park?]
On its face, it was a simple question:
Was a 10,000 square foot chunk of Liberty Park sold off illegally?
The county prosecutor tasked with finding that answer – and potentially filing charges on the matter – has held back from investigating the sale until City Hall wraps up its own internal probe, according to DA spokesperson Kimberly Edds.
“The city was asked to report to OCDA if that investigation revealed any evidence of criminal wrongdoing,” said Edds in an April 11 text message.
It’s also documented in a letter between Spitzer’s office and Westminster City Attorney Christian Bettenhausen, who contacted the DA’s office on at least two occasions in 2021 about the sale.
Yet Bettenhausen himself had a very public role in that sale, overseeing the contracts.
He was a chief legal advisor for the council at the time of the 2016 land transaction, attending a closed session meeting regarding the property.
His office also put the council-requested internal probe into motion, hiring an outside attorney without public discussion.
There are mounting questions why the DA would wait for those who had a role in a questionable sale to let them know if any laws were violated.
The District Attorney’s office “should not depend on a private investigation to determine if there’s possible criminal wrongdoing,” said one resident and frequent speaker at council meetings, a City Hall watchdog named Terry Rains, in a Monday phone interview.
“Because that private investigation will not yield a full body of evidence.”
Reached for comment over the phone on Monday, Bettenhausen declined to comment on the issue, only to say he’s had very little to do with looking into it.
He underscored that beyond an Oct. 29 formal request-to-investigate letter he sent to the DA at the City Council’s direction, he’s been nowhere near the internal probe.
“The only thing I will say is that I’ve had absolutely no involvement whatsoever in the investigation.”
Yet it’s unclear who has.
Nearly two years since the City Council’s initial October investigation requests, the answer to that question – whether the sale was legal or not – still has not surfaced.
That’s despite the fact that the internal probe’s actual investigation process has been finished since as early as this past September, according to City Manager Christine Cordon.
“The city council provided direction to the city to move forward with the findings,” Cordon said of a meeting she said “would have taken place at the beginning of September 2022.”
Two other city council members, Kimberly Ho and Carlos Manzo, gave the same time frame in Monday phone interviews.
At no meeting in September did Bettenhausen publicly report that development out of closed session.
And yet, despite the DA’s office holding back in favor of having City Hall forward its own internal findings, a spokesperson for Spitzer says prosecutors have received nothing yet.
“We have not heard anything back from the City regarding the outcome of their independent investigation,” said DA spokesperson Kimberly Edds in a Monday email response to questions.
After disclosing on Monday that the investigation had wrapped up, Cordon on Tuesday said the city wouldn’t comment further.
“This is an ongoing matter that remains attorney-client privileged. To protect the integrity of the process, the City cannot comment on the status or provide information regarding the investigation or process as long as it remains confidential. When any portion becomes publicly disclosable, the City will provide that information.”
She also declined to comment on why the investigation has been done for at least seven months without anything passed on to county prosecutors: “The City declines to comment at this time because the process remains ongoing.”
It’s a window into an issue that’s surfaced for cities grappling with questionable private purchases of public lands across Orange County:
How do you investigate yourself?
It comes at a time where in nearby Anaheim, officials are also internally probing their controversial and illegal – and now voided – sale of Angel Stadium.
In that city, the process has happened more publicly, with council discussions about the investigation and the actual investigators behind it, with reports back to the council.
But questions keep popping up as to whether residents will ever get an in-depth look at the extent of alleged corruption at city hall, and the internal probe’s raw conclusions.
[Read: Will Anaheim Officials Keep the Findings of a Taxpayer Funded Corruption Probe Secret?]
In 2016, a Westminster City Council with now entirely different members approved selling a piece of Liberty Park which had been listed by its address and as “excess property” – despite being public parkland – and appeared in the consent calendar section of their meeting agenda.
Without deliberation, council members sold 10,000 square feet of the park at 13900 Monroe Street, to an entity called STT Management for $100,000, with one abstention by former council member Tyler Diep, who in a Monday phone interview said he couldn’t recall why he abstained, claiming he wasn’t in the room.
Video of that July 27, 2016 council meeting showed Diep in the room, logging an “abstain” vote on that meeting’s entire consent calendar.
In October of 2021, an almost entirely new set of City Council members – save for former Mayor Tri Ta, who voted in favor of the 2016 sale – revisited the transaction at Council Member Kimberly Ho’s request.
“Everything about this transaction is so shady,” said Ho at the October meeting.
She went as far as to say “our city has been robbed” after Bettenhausen, at that meeting, suggested council members be careful with public statements on the sale and suggested the matter be debated in closed session.
And despite being present for the original Liberty Park sale, Bettenhausen at that meeting said it was “the first I’m aware of it” – agreeing with calls to investigate while calling the sale “highly irregular” and “very problematic.”
“We don’t ever sell property on consent (calendar),” Bettenhausen said at the time.
Bettenhausen contacted the DA’s office on two occasions after the council’s October vote to privately investigate the sale.
The first occasion was an Oct. 29 letter which Bettenhausen sent to Spitzer’s office, as directed by the council, asking county prosecutors to investigate.
But there was another occasion in which Bettenhausen contacted Spitzer’s former chief assistant district attorney, Shawn Nelson, “and advised him that Westminster has hired a private firm to investigate the transaction,” according to a Nov. 5, 2021 letter to Bettenhausen from the DA’s office, which Edds shared with Voice of OC on Monday.
“Based on your letter and your conversation with Chief Assistant District Attorney Nelson, OCDA will abstain at this time from conducting a simultaneous investigation of the land sale,” reads the letter written by Senior Deputy District Attorney Steven Schriver.
Two current council members who criticized the 2016 sale – which they weren’t on the council for, at the time – both said in interviews on Monday that Bettenhausen has not played any role in the investigation.
“I can tell you that Christian is not involved,” said City Council Member Carlos Manzo in a phone interview.
“I don’t think he’s involved in it anymore,” said City Council Member Kimberly Ho.
However, Ho voiced concern about Bettenhausen’s November 2021 contact with the DA’s office.
“I don’t know for what reason he would do that,” Ho said.
She said it’s now time for the DA to step in.
“I disagree with the city having to do its own investigation. I think that the investigation should be with the DA and the DA should take the lead and and should not be giving any excuses,” Ho said. “It shouldn’t be up to us to find criminal wrongdoing. That’s their job.”
Asked whether any of her new council members elected in November are adequately concerned about the sale, Ho said, “I don’t think so.”
Requests for comment from newly elected council members NamQuan Nguyen and Amy Phan West, as well as Mayor Chi Charlie Nguyen, who abstained from the October 2021 vote to investigate and has been on the council since 2018, went unreturned on Monday.
Requests for comment also went unreturned from former Mayor Tri Ta, who was on the council and voted in favor of the 2016 sale and has since been elected a state Assemblyman.
Edds did not respond to questions about conflict concerns over waiting for the city’s own investigation before county prosecutors moved in.
Phone, email and text messages to Spitzer himself went unreturned on Monday as well.
“It’s our open space. The city reduced our open space,” Rains said over the phone. “We the residents experienced the loss.”
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