Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer is officially investigating Anaheim City Hall after a Department of Justice probe found illegal dealings by the former mayor last year, marking the first time he’s publicly acknowledged looking into local corruption.
While Spitzer pledged to be a leader in stopping elected leaders’ misconduct at his inauguration, his office hasn’t publicly called out many elected leaders for much after four years in office.
“The DA’s going to call balls and strikes and the DA has no business being involved in political activity in this county,” Spitzer said in his 2019 inauguration. “Everybody in the county looks to the DA to be the person that’s making decisions about elections and public official conduct.”
Yet a Voice of OC review of data obtained through a public records request found Spitzer hasn’t charged any elected leaders over the past year, and while his office claimed it had “handled” dozens of “political and election fraud,” cases, only three of those cases led to any prosecution.
He also passed on filing charges in court against at least four politicians with violations of the Brown Act, California’s chief open meetings law that guarantees residents a right to participate in elected leaders’ decisions.
When asked about the issue, Spitzer said in a statement his focus was on educating elected officials about how they should conduct public meetings rather than prosecuting them.
“That is exactly what you want in a District Attorney. Every case, regardless of whether it involves an elected official, is evaluated on its individual merits and whether the necessary elements of a crime can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” Spitzer said in a statement.
“We use our discretion as prosecutors,” he continued, “To determine whether prosecution or issuing a demand letter requiring additional training and any necessary corrective action be taken to help ensure elected officials are adhering to the rules.”
This year, federal prosecutors unveiled corruption charges against former Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu, who eventually pleaded guilty to trying to push through the sale of Angel Stadium in exchange for $1 million in campaign support.
The former head of the city’s Chamber of Commerce Todd Ament – a close Sidhu ally – also pleaded guilty to a series of federal fraud charges.
That’s prompted a lot of questions for Spitzer about his record on political prosecutions.
“You don’t want your DA so involved it feels like a political witch hunt, and there’s a partisan bias there,” said Fullerton College political science professor Jodi Balma. “But when the FBI has to be called, you wonder if the DA should’ve been involved prior.”
Spitzer now, through a spokesperson, said his office is “investigating,” Anaheim, but didn’t clarify any further what that meant.
What Cases Did the DA Prosecute?
In the 2023-24 county budget, Spitzer claimed his office had reviewed “almost 40 political and election fraud matters” over the past year through the Special Prosecutions Unit.
In their response to a records request from Voice of OC about those cases, Spitzer’s office released limited records showing that of the 39 cases in question, 36 hadn’t led to any official legal action.
In total, Spitzer filed three cases charging four people, none of whom were elected officials.
One case focused on a recall petition that forged signatures in Buena Park, while the other two cases were connected to a perjury charge against one man who lied in a complaint to the Fair Political Practices Commission.
The remaining 36 cases didn’t lead to any prosecution.
Spitzer’s office declined to disclose details on most of those cases, citing people’s privacy rights.
They did release 18 letters they sent out to a variety of people involved in cases, that ranged from local residents to elected leaders, but they redacted all the names of the people involved and of the government agencies involved.
The letters were a mix of warnings to elected officials and notices to complainants that they found no evidence to back up their claims.
One of the Brown Act violations Spitzer took action on was after Kris Erickson, a trustee for the Orange Unified School Board, shared concerns over the abrupt firing of the district’s superintendent in a special meeting behind closed doors last January.
While there were allegations the board majority illegally met in secret to fire the superintendent, Spitzer’s office said they found no evidence of that.
They did however admonish Erickson for disclosing details from the board’s closed door meeting.
“The interests of justice can be served through remedial and educational measures,” wrote senior deputy district attorney Steven Schriver in a letter notifying Erickson she’d need to get more training on what she wasn’t allowed to share from closed session meetings.
In another instance, Spitzer required attendees of a June 27, 2022 town hall meeting on Safety and Wellness to attend more Brown Act training after a majority of an unnamed board attended.
It’s unclear which board was responsible for violating the Brown Act at the meeting because the DA’s office redacted that information from the letter.
“Although a violation of the Brown Act appears to have occurred, pursuing formal remedies is not warranted at this time,” wrote deputy district attorney Avery Harrison. “Instead, OCDA requests that Board members receive additional training focusing on the requisites for a “meeting,” within the Brown Act.”
While the DA’s office released some letters, they refused to release any information on the remaining cases, arguing they didn’t have to disclose case names or numbers.
“The Orange County District Attorney (OCDA) generally claims for its records, such as might exist, all applicable disclosure exemptions available under the California Public Records Act,” wrote public records act counsel Wayne Phillips.
“While we set forth our reasons for our response, we reserve the right to present additional theories and authority for non-disclosure in the future.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
Since you’ve made it this far,
You obviously care about local news and value good journalism. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month you can help us reach that goal.