By NORBERTO SANTANA JR., TRACY WOOD AND NICK GERDA, The Voice of OC
The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission confirmed Tuesday that the agency is investigating a majority of Orange County supervisors along with the CalOptima board of directors for potential conflict of interest violations of the Political Reform Act, based on the findings of two Orange County Grand Jury reports filed earlier this year alleging corruption at the highest levels of county government.
The revelation about the FPPC probe spilled out from an emotional public meeting Tuesday where all five county supervisors lashed out publicly at Orange County grand jurors accusing them of using irresponsible headlines to cover badly focused probes that had now triggered state reviews.
Current, former and future grand jurors, in turn, showed up at the public podium, steadfastly defending the integrity of their reports and volunteer efforts. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas also defended the efforts of grand jurors.
At one point during Tuesday’s meeting, Supervisor John Moorlach angrily stared grand jurors down – as supervisors debated a motion brought by Supervisor Todd Spitzer to slash future panelists individual stipends from $50 a day down to $15. Last month, supervisors rejected a request from the grand jury for $20,000 in supplemental spending.
Orange County’s Superior Court budgeted $209,000 for the grand jury this year, with $180,000 of that going to salaries and benefits and $29,000 spent on services and supplies.
Grand Jury Foreman Ray Garcia, who defended the legitimacy of his panels’ previous reports, told supervisors that the two final grand jury reports of his term would land this morning.
Orange County grand jurors first attracted the ire of county supervisors in January when they issued their first report of the year, evocatively titled, “CalOptima burns while majority of supervisors fiddle.”
That report questioned fundraising connections between hospital lobbyists, County Supervisor Janet Nguyen and a county ordinance adoption that increased hospital influence on the governing board of CalOptima – the county’s managed health care plan that covers more than 400,000 poor and elderly residents.
In April, the panel followed with “A Call for Ethical Standards: Corruption in Orange County.” It gave a recap of corruption cases stretching back as far as the 1970s and urged the formation of an ethics commission, such as used in Los Angeles or San Diego.
Apparently, the day after that report landed, the state’s political watchdog kicked into gear, launching investigations into county supervisors – except County Supervisor Todd Spitzer who was not on the board during the ordinance change – along with many of the board members that Nguyen moved onto the CalOptima board of directors.
“We opened the investigation based on the Orange County report,” said Gary Winuk, chief of the Enforcement Division for the FPPC late Tuesday.
“We are investigating violations of the Political Reform Act based on the findings of the grand jury,” Winuk said adding that, “we were made aware of it through the District Attorney’s office.”
District Attorney Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder declined comment.
Not much is known beyond that, other than the probe is expected to take 18-24 months, Winuk said, and does involve the use of subpoena authority to interview witnesses, signaling that it is more than just a routine audit of campaign accounts.
Supervisors likely began receiving letters from the FPPC in early May – about the time Spitzer suggested rejecting the grand jury supplemental funding request.
The probe also seems to have already triggered a change at CalOptima board meetings. In the past year, CalOptima board members rarely declared a conflict or abstained on issues.
But in May, there were two abstentions among the 10 board members and the June 6 meeting saw an unusual flurry of board members abstaining and even leaving the room because of conflict concerns.
When the board was discussing contracts with health networks, four of the 10 board members at one point abstained. On another item that covered rate payments to providers, Nguyen abstained and two other board members, Samara Cardenas and Viet Van Dang, left the room.
Peter Agarwal abstained on a third issue involving teleworking and use of the CalOptima building.
The grand jury institution is rooted in the state constitution and every county is required to impanel one each fiscal year, which is why they are typically sworn in early July.
Along with working with local prosecutors, the panel – typically made up of nearly two-dozen retirees – is required to also look into issues of good governance, a civilian watchdog of sorts with limited public funding. Public agencies are required to publicly respond to its criticisms.
That’s where it gets tricky.
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