1. We Need a Public Debate on How to Run the Assessor’s Office — and Supporting Jorge Lopez on Tuesday is the Only Way to Get It
This story is the persuasive complaint by Assessor Candidates Jorge Lopez that the incumbent, Webster Guillory, blatantly and massively violated the law in collecting signatures. But let’s start by focusing on the third candidate, Claude Parrish — the one with the expensive signs blanketing Orange County — because he’s also at the center of this story.
Parrish has overwhelming support from Orange County’s Republican power structure. (Check out the names yourself. The name of my opponent for District Attorney, incumbent Tony Rackauckas, is conspicuously absent, perhaps because he’s about to play a major role in the story. The incumbent’s endorsements also lean conservative, but by contrast are pretty thin.)
It’s almost completely unclear what he’s going to do as Assessor if elected. Here’s his platform:
As your newly elected County Assessor, Claude will:
- Extend the deadline for tax appeals from September 15th to November 30th, giving taxpayers an additional 75 days to file appeals.
- Create a Taxpayer Advocate Office to assist taxpayers with filing assessment appeals and navigating California’s complex tax laws.
- Establish a south county satellite office in existing county office space, with current local employees, at no additional cost to taxpayers.
- Allow taxpayers all lawful exemptions that they are qualified for without undue bureaucratic delays.
- In many instances, due to the over billings and errors of the current Assessor, our County had a record high of 25,080 property tax appeals work load in one year. These appeals negatively impact property owners, small business, and seniors, Claude Parrish will, bring accuracy and fairness to the process.
These sound like good ideas — they’re almost surely poll-tested to ensure that they are. But are they good ideas? Are they “best practices”? Are they cost-efficient? Do they have hidden downsides? YOU don’t know — and PARRISH probably doesn’t know either, because his experience on the Board of Equalization as an automatic “no” vote on taxation is legislative rather than executive. How is he at managing a team to accomplish these ends? How will he reform an office alleged to be rife with misconduct?
The Assessor’s Office bring in a huge share of the money with which we run the county. While you would not suspect this based on his platform, the major issues facing the office is that LARGE corporations, the ones that can afford expensive and high-profile legal teams , tend not to be paying their fair share, because the Assessor’s Office rolls over and plays dead once they come into sight. It’s to make up that shortfall that the Assessor’s Office takes such an aggressive (and often unreasonable) position with local taxpayers.
You have the opportunity for five months of critical discussion between Parrish — who given his resources seems certain either to make the runoff or render one unnecessary — and either Guillory or Lopez. Lopez, having worked there for decades and finally stood up as a whistleblower to criticize improper practices — a complaint ignored by DA Rackauckas, of course — could probably teach him some important things about the office. This is a public discussion that you should hear!
Great efforts are being made, right now, to ensure that that discussion won’t happen. And the only way to make it happen is to vote for Jorge Lopez for Assessor next Tuesday, because Webster Guillory’s goose is cooked. If the DA does his job — and if it means eliminating Parrish’s competition in a runoff we can presume that this time he will — Lopez’s complaint against Guillory will be shown to have merit. And that will be the end of Guillory’s re-election chances — just barely too late, most likely, for people to be able to choose the alternative that can inform the County of how the Assessors Office should and will be run.
2. What Guillory Did Wrong — and My Partial Eyewitness Account
Lopez has complained to both the Grand Jury and to Rackauckas about the actions of his former boss, Assessor in supposedly personally gathering 29 nomination signatures from his employees over a couple of hours on the afternoon of March 7. I can’t tell you from personal knowledge what Guillory did between the time he picked up his signature packet and the time that he returned with it, but I can tell you when he was there — because I was there with him.
In fact, I was there before him, both times, making him wait in line. I got to the Registrar of Voters Office not long before him that afternoon to go through the process of getting my signature forms and being sworn in. I then collected a bunch of signatures myself while some of my friends, including Vern Nelson and his housemate Marselle, did the same. I then got back to the Registrar of Voters office before Guillory did.
I took the selfie that you see at the left on a whim when I first arrived. Its timestamp is 11:36 a.m. I didn’t get out of there until, as I recall, about 1:15. Guillory, a surprise addition to the roster of candidates after Dennis Bilodeau apparently decided not to go forward, got out later than that — and he was still at a counter a few yard to the left of mine when I left. His file suggests that he didn’t even pay his filing fee until about 1:45 — that is, after lunchtime. (That will turn out to matter.) After that, he could get back to the Registrar’s Office to spend his own work time collecting employees’ signatures to nominate him for office, so long as he returned to the Registrar of Voters’ office with at least 20 completed and verified signatures by 5:00 p.m.
I can tell you that even with help this was a daunting task. I was, for example, summarily (though nicely) booted from one place that I thought might be a treasure trove of signatures — Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez’s office — on the grounds that one could not collect signatures in a government office. My mistake! I had thought, based on the instructions I’d been given, that you simply couldn’t collect signatures for county office inside of county buildings — a rule that everyone in county politics seemed to think applied.
Later, when candidate Jorge Lopez — whom I support and have occasionally advised, though not for money or other consideration — asked to see the signatures that Guillory had gathered so quickly, he was in for a surprise. Three of the four pages of signatures bore a sworn statement that Guillory had collected them all personally, with the other page (#3) bearing the signature of his top assistant. And, more importantly, apparently just about all of the people who signed were employees of the Assessor’s Office.
Guillory would have been able to get back to the Assessor’s office by no earlier than 2:00 — and my guess, based on the time stamp of his payment, later than that. He could have had many people fill out different forms simultaneously to save time, but — if we credit his sworn statement — he did not.
All in all, Shaw Lin collected 10 names and Guillory collected 29. So far as OJB has been able to determine, every name signed other than his own was someone over whom Guillory had direct supervisory responsibility. Unless they were at lunch — and as we’ll see they were all allegedly outside of the office — anyone paid hourly was on work time.
(Let me put on my Plaintiff’s Employment Lawyer hat for a moment. DON’T DO THIS. This is a really, really bad practice. I won’t need to tell you why; Norberto Santana found some people to do it.)
Lopez, based on the understanding that one could not gather signatures in a county office, complained about Guillory’s activities. (He also, based on scuttlebutt from sources inside the office, alleged that Guillory did not collect the 29 signatures outside of the office, as he claimed, and that he didn’t even collect all of them himself, as is legally required. This misrepresentation is what some Republicans working for Pringle got busted for a couple of decades back!)
So Lopez contacted the media — including OJB — with his findings. I decided to sit on the story, because scooping the big boys is one way to make it more likely that a given story will never get written.
3. The Register Responds!
Martin Wisckol (whose work I generally admire) was first to the plate, writing this in the Register:
An opponent’s complaint to the district attorney alleges county Assessor Webster Guillory’s collection of election signatures from employees in his office violates state law, but the legal memo in the complaint doesn’t explicitly ban the practice.
Additionally, two elections lawyers told the Register that while fundraising in county offices is illegal, they know of no law banning signatures from being gathered there. And Guillory said the signatures were gathered outside the building during the employees’ break.
“We are very careful about these things,” said Guillory, county assessor since 1998. “We’ve been at this a long time.”
District Attorney Chief of Staff Susan Schroeder acknowledged Tuesday that her office received the complaint, submitted May 13, and declined further comment.
(Note: in all the “long time” that he’s “been at this,” I believe that Guillory had NO experience with deciding to run for office on the last afternoon of filing, so his statement should have been challenged.)
Anyway, as you can see, given a complaint of what everyone seems to understand would be official wrongdoing, Wisckol’s first instinct was to see whether this actually did violate the law. I thought that this was ridiculous at the time — and said so. Yes, he went to election law attorneys Dana Reed and Frederic Woocher, who said that there was no such law, but why didn’t he go to Neal Kelley and the County Council advising him?
Well, score one for Martin. I called up Neal Kelley, whose office has told me both times I’ve run that we cannot collect signatures in county buildings — and he said that, sure enough, he’s not aware of any such statute. Informed that candidates have been told to avoid this since at least 2012 (and probably longer), he hypothesized that these were instructions that had come from the Registrar of Voters prior to him and somehow persisted.
But score one for me, too, because based on his statements Guillory himself believed that “the signatures were gathered outside the building during the employees’ break” and that “they were very careful about such things” — which shows that HE believed that gathering signatures inside of county buildings was against the law. So if it now turns out — as Lopez alleges, that these signatures were collected inside the building, then Guillory (who says collected 29 of them) didn’t break the law, but he ATTEMPTED to break the law! And that is a crime in itself. (Those of you studying for the Bar Exam: remember, “mistake of law is no excuse”!)
So, seriously, all the District Attorney’s office has had to is to interview the 39 people (especially the 29 from Guillory) who signed the form — let’s put them in separate rooms for that this time, huh? — and find out the exact circumstances of the signatures. And then compare that against any footage from security cameras and testimony from others — administrative assistants, maintenance workers, etc. — who were around that day — letting witnesses (to be a good sport) know in advance that one is setting that sort of “perjury trap.”
Given the imminence of the election, this matter is pressing — and investigating it shouldn’t really take all that long. If it’s true that Guillory perjured himself in attesting that he had personally gathered 29 signatures — outside of the building, on people’s break time — within about 129 minutes, then he’s probably not going to be able to win re-election. If everything that Guillory said about his actions was true, then that could reflect badly on Lopez.
Voters have a right to know the truth — if, as one hopes, the results of a DA’s investigation can be trusted. So the report should be out by noon on Monday at the latest, right?
Maybe not. If the DA favors Parrish — and they sure do seem to have a lot of supporters in common — waiting to release the report would make it more likely that Lopez is eliminated on Tuesday … followed by lowering the boom on Guillory as early as Wednesday. (In fact, if they got him the resign, the Board of Supes could appoint Parrish immediately, allowing him to run as an incumbent.)
Would the DA manipulate things that way for political reasons? I don’t know — have you noticed a lot of prominent cases being settled suddenly in the weeks just before the election? (You can rest assured that I would not try this sort of thing — because, even if I wanted to, the county’s powers-that-be wouldn’t let me get away with it! And that’s fine — I like accountability!)
Wisckol makes another important point — upon which the Register has not followed up:
Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies, also said he saw no problem if the signatures were gathered outside the building – but expressed concern if they were collected inside the office.
“If they were collected in the building during work hours, I see at least an ethical problem of coercing employees to sign,” Stern said.
With due respect to Mr. Stern — if your boss approaches you outside of the office and asks you to sign his nomination papers, there’s an ethical problem there too. Consider one thing that Stern perhaps didn’t: you can’t sign someone’s papers if you’ve already signed someone else’s papers for the same office. So, let’s say that one of the people approached had already signed for Parrish or Lopez. Are they expected to admit that to Guillory to his face — even if they’re at a Starbucks?
(One last point here — and this would be a footnote if we had them. Woocher said that he didn’t see how Guillory could be interpreted to have “use[d] county resources to advocate from one side or the other in an election contest.” Well, taking Guillory’s statement at face value, either (1) he ran back and forth into the building asking people if they could accompany him outside on their break time or (2) he had someone else run around collecting signators on his behalf. The latter is likely “use of county resources.”)
4. The Voice of OC Responds!
Norberto Santana at the Voice saw different issues arising than did Wisckol. He took a little more time and dug in considerably deeper — and you should really take the time to read the entire thing:
California Penal Code Section 424 has been on the books since 1872 and is often invoked against officials who used public funds for political campaigns. The federal Hatch Act was enacted following allegations that employees of the Works Progress Administration were involved in the congressional elections of 1938.
And case law, specifically People vs. (former Orange County Supervisor Robert) Battin dates back to the 1970s and addressed county supervisors’ staff and equipment being used in campaigns.
“It is a misdemeanor to proselytize during working hours and of course an employer has undue influence over employees in this kind of circumstance,” said Julie H. Biggs, a respected municipal law specialist who serves on the board of directors of CalAware, a statewide open records and whistleblower advocacy group that advises Voice of OC on legal issues.
According to an Oct. 25, 2011 memo by Orange County’s County Counsel office on political activities of public workers, “non-elected county officials and employees may not give speeches, may not make public appearances, and may not do staff work in support of or opposition to ballot measures or candidates for elected office during their normal county work hours, unless the time they spend on such activities is charged to personal leave time.”
Payroll records reviewed by Voice of OC show that nearly all of the public workers at the Assessor’s office who signed Guillory’s nomination papers on the afternoon of Friday, March 7 didn’t take any personal time off.
Well, that looks like a problem! I can’t resist quoting another dry paragraph from Santana:
It’s unclear how nearly two-dozen employees communicated about supporting their boss for re-election that Friday and coordinated their breaks so they could nomination papers for Guillory.
Santana also interviews Jorge Lopez, which gives you a sense of the latter’s character:
Lopez and Larry Bales, another former assessor employee, said workers inside the office had communicated to them that Webster showed up to the office that Friday and had executive managers walk around to workers’ cubicles on a lower floor to gather the signatures.
“Webster always prides himself as following the rules and law,” Lopez said. “Yet here he is violating every code and department policy on the subject, perjuring himself and pressuring people.”
Lopez said assessor employees asked by a boss to sign election nomination documents are in an impossible situation.
“They don’t have an option,” Lopez said. “What happens to them if they don’t sign.”
See — that’s the sort of perspective on following the rules that makes me really like and respect the guy!
Whether Guillory did something wrong or whether he lied about what he did because he thought that it was wrong — in other words, for reasons of either guilt or guile — I expect for him not to even campaign against Parrish. And that would apparently suit the powers that be of Orange County just fine.
5. Why This Matters — and What You Need to Know About Jorge Lopez
If Guillory and Lopez prevent Parrish from taking over 50% of the vote in this upcoming election, one of them will challenge him in November. If Guillory makes such a runoff, and if the charges stick that he illegitimately collected his required nomination signatures on the afternoon of Friday, March 7, from his own employees while they were in the Assessor’s Office itself, and then lied about it — then that election is pretty much over before it begins. If Lopez, the Democratic Party-endorsed candidate (despite being quite non-partisan), then we’re going to have a long and intense public discussion about how to manage that office. (I think that that would be a good thing!)
For reasons unclear to me, a lot of Republicans and others in OC really seem to dislike Claude Parrish — which is probably why, after Dennis Bilodeau didn’t go forward with his run, Guillory waltzed belatedly into the office and started the process. So if you’re wondering how Lopez could be competitive in November, there’s your answer: he’ll be able to raise money from people who, for whatever reason, don’t want Parrish in office. And he’ll probably be able to debate Parrish into a bloody pulp. Take a look at his statement of why he’s running and ask yourself if you want to see these two talking about this extremely important office for five illuminating months!
Why am I running for Assessor ?
What is an Assessor ?
Most people don’t understand what an Assessor is, or care about what he does. They might not even realize that he is an elected official. When they learned that an Assessor deals with their property taxes, they are still indifferent, as long as their taxes appear reasonable. What they fail to recognize is that this attitude makes this office more vulnerable to corruption, abuse, and the temptation to push and cross boundaries. Let’s look at history for examples.
In October of 2012, Los Angeles County Assessor, John Noguez, was arrested and convicted of corruption and misappropriation of public funds that had taken place over several years and involved collusion with staff. He is currently serving time in jail.
In San Bernardino County, Assessor, Bill Postmus, was arrested and charged with conspiracy, extortion, bribery, grand theft, and misuse of public funds that had taken place over many years. In August of 2010, while making a court appearance on the above charges, Mr. Postmus was arrested a second time for being under the influence of a controlled substance.
In February of 1977, Jack Vallerga, Assessor of Orange County, was removed from office, charged, and found guilty of misappropriation of public moneys that took place over many years. The charges were attributable to not only using public funds for personal use, but also for his failure to turn over money received for the sale of a computer program used for the valuation of single-family residential properties. This software was developed over many years, during county time, by Orange County employees. The charge for this action was grand theft.
All of these examples point to the danger of having an elected official in a position that they could hold for a lifetime due to no term limits. People in this situation feel very comfortable and over time develop a sense of entitlement. They lose focus, perspective, disregard accountability, and their ideas become outdated and stale.
The current Assessor in Orange County was elected in 1998. If re-elected in 2014, he will be in office for over 20 years. He has lost focus of what the constitutional duties and function of the Assessor’s office are. Instead he has made technology and the development of an extremely expensive computer system, the main focus of his efforts. He has done this at the expense of sacrificing constitutionally mandated work. He has also taking it upon himself to market this software to any other public entities that will listen. Do you see the similarities with what happened in Orange County in 1977?
I am running for Assessor because it is time for a change. It is time for a fresh look and new perspective in that office. Is time to stop the unnecessary spending and using the county as a personal ATM. It is time to return the focus on what the Assessor’s Office was established to do. As Orange County Assessor the focus of the office will be to make sure that all taxpayers in Orange County are treated fairly, with respect, and only pay their fair share of property taxes.
I think that the public will appreciate getting to know Jorge Lopez. He has much the same appeal as Hugh Nguyen has had — that of an honest technocrat who is interested in public service uninterested in party politics. (Note: I still prefer Gary Pritchard, but I understand why Vern prefers Nguyen. They’re both good.) If you don’t want to hand the position over to Claude Parrish immediately next week, there’s only one candidate who will have the ability to give him a serious challenge once the DA’s report (if it’s serious) comes in– and it’s Jorge Lopez, not Webster Guillory.