Earlier this year I looked at the use of travel expense funds by City Council members in Lake Forest and found what I believed to be “irregularities” in Councilwoman McCullough’s reports. It looked to me like, among other things, Mrs. McCullough was spending City money on her husband’s personal expenses when she traveled to conferences. It also looked like her penchant to ride in limousines and taxis violated the City’s requirement to “ use the most economical mode and class of transportation…”
(Note: The picture above comes from the website of the Sacramento company that McCullough uses when going from the airport to the Hyatt Regency. Hyatt staff say that the Super Shuttle is available for $13 each way. The limousine charges in excess of $50.)
Bear in mind, traveling to conferences is not exactly “city business” in the same way that attending a Council meeting is City business, or attending a meeting of the Fire Authority. Going to conferences is more like a perk. It’s not a requirement of the job and many Council members don’t attend.
I received copies of her reports from 2012 to 2013 and after considerable research found what I considered to be more than 60 instances in which Mrs. McCullough violated the City code, with about $1,000 that appeared to be spent inappropriately. I gave the material to two different and independent CPAs and they confirmed my suspicions. I then informally contacted City staff to inquire into the process by which these things could have happened, and was told that the City basically operated on an honor system and that Council members’ expense statements were not scrutinized to any great extent, and thus it was possible that the irregularities I discovered had in fact occurred. I concluded there was sufficient cause to bring the irregularities to the attention of the proper authorities.
On July 24, 2014 I wrote to the City Manager –
As you know I have been looking into the use of the travel budget by Council members and found irregularities in Councilwoman McCullough’s records. While I publicized the discrepancies between what she says and what she does, I haven’t as yet discussed the apparent breaches of the law. By my research I’ve identified more than 50 specific violations involving nearly $1000. I know from past experience that I don’t always interpret municipal codes accurately, so I thought it would be prudent for me to meet with the City Attorney (and anyone else you suggest) and go over each of these examples and make a determination as to whether or not these are violations.”
Absent a response, I inquired again on August 1, 2014.
LAKE FOREST CITY MANAGER SAYS – “HEAR NO EVEIL…”
On August 11, 2014 the City Manager replied –
“The City Attorney and I had the opportunity to discuss your request; we regret the delay, but it deserved full consideration before responding.
…Given the obvious and inherent conflict of interest for the City Attorney or a member of the City staff to offer an opinion generally as to whether or not a member of the city council has violated a particular municipal, state, or federal law, it also would be inappropriate to provide advice in this specific instance. State laws and relevant ethical guidelines for lawyers and public employees recognize these constraints and, consequently, vest interpretation and enforcement of such provisions to independent agencies such as the Fair Political Practices Commission, the District Attorney, and other law enforcement agencies. While we appreciate your desire to understand those laws better as they might apply in the instance of Council Member McCullough’s expense reports, we cannot offer further assistance in aiding your inquiry.”
LAKE FOREST POLICE CHIEF SAYS – “… SEE NO EVIL…”
Following City Manager Dunek’s advice I contacted the Orange County District Attorney (DA) who informed me that I should bring the matter to the attention of the Lake Forest Police, who then would investigate and if there was sufficient cause, refer the case to the D.A. for prosecution.
I called the Police Chief and left a message requesting a meeting and briefly shared with him the sequence of events outlined above. We arranged a meeting for Wednesday September 17. On September 16, Lt. Valentine called and informed me that after discussions with his “superiors” he decided that he was not the person to investigate the case. He said he contacted the D.A.’s office and spoke with the Special Prosecutions Unit (SPU) who agreed to take the information. I sent an e-mail to the SPU and they replied, acknowledging receipt and said “Our office is going to review the documents and I will make sure to let you know about the progress and the result of our investigation.”
CALIFORNIA ATTORNEY GENERAL
Parallel with this, after City Manager Dunek’s refusal to investigate the case, I forwarded my report to the State of California Attorney General (AG). The AG replied on September 15 saying
“It is our general policy that local governments are primarily responsible for citizen complaints against their employees or agencies, and that appropriate local resources should be utilized for the resolution of such complaints.
We suggest that you first address your complaint to the head of the city’s agency. If this does not lead to a satisfactory resolution, we suggest that you contact the city attorney’s office, the mayor’s office, and your representative on the city council for assistance. (bold added)”
CITY OF SANTA ANA
“City Attorney Sonia Carvalho began investigating the deal almost immediately after the article was published and six months ago turned over a report to the DA’s office and the state Fair Political Practices Commission. The DA and the FPPC then launched their own investigations.”
Apparently Lake Forest City Manager Dunek’s claims that there was an “obvious and inherent conflict of interest” preventing him investigating “whether or not a member of the city council has violated a particular municipal, state, or federal law…” are not shared by the City of Santa Ana. Dunek’s claim that “State laws and relevant ethical guidelines for lawyers and public employees recognize these constraints and, consequently, vest interpretation and enforcement of such provisions to independent agencies” are obviously specious considering the Santa Ana investigation.
To determine whether or not Lake Forest is the odd one out, or Santa Ana, I did an online search and found several more recent cases of cities investigating their council members. For example, the Statesboro City Council investigated whether or not a majority of council members met in potentially illegal private meetings. The Troutville City Council investigated the Mayor building an illegal structure on his property that violated city code.
Hence, the results of a casual search reveal that several cities have no problems investigating the potentially illegal activities of their Council members.
WHY THE COVER-UP?
The collective refusal of the Lake Forest employees raises some questions. Why would the people with the responsibility for enforcing the laws in this regard refuse to do their duty? Apparently the Attorney General of California expects them to do it, and apparently Managers, Attorneys, and Police Chiefs across the nation are doing it.
Can Mrs. McCullough’s mindless support of Police Services be a factor in the Police Chief’s reluctance? After all, Mrs. McCullough has refused to consider getting competitive bids from the City of Irvine, whose reputation for excellence in Police services far exceeds that of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (for whom the Police Chief works). It doesn’t make a lot of political sense for the Chief to investigate his strongest supporter.
Can Mrs. McCullough’s mindless support of City Manager Dunek be a factor in his response? McCullough never tires of praising his work, even when it is shown to be faulty and flawed. And didn’t Mrs. McCullough recently vote Mr. Dunek a $10,000 bonus on top of what many people believe is an already obscene salary and benefits package? Would Mr. Dunek’s investigation of his “boss” impact his future bonuses?
There is a substantial amount of evidence that suggests that City Councilwoman Kathy McCullough may have improperly used public monies and in the process violated city and state laws, but the City Manager, City Attorney, and Lake Forest Police Chief refuse to open an investigation, all of whom claim that it isn’t their responsibility. Yet the Attorney General of California claims that this is their responsibility, and there is ample precedence, including an ongoing case in Santa Ana, where City authorities have launched investigations into the activities of their elected officials.
As of this date, the D.A.’s office have yet to respond and the City employees still refuse to review the case.
About Jim Gardner