Hey, Tustin City Councilman (and former mayor) Jerry Amante: the grand jury beotch slaps you for “misfeasance in office” and “exceeding or misusing a public power or position and thereby risking
harm” for lobbying a college president to force the resignation of a professor who exposed the massive amount of
taxpayer funds spent to compensate Orange County public officials. What's next?
“I'm becoming a paid lobbyist!”
Yes, to further prove the old adage “scum rises to the top in Orange County,” the grand jury releases its report excoriating Amante on June 28, and four days later FSB Core Strategies fires off a press release heralding Amante as its newest hire.
Amante is to be the senior vice president, general counsel and deputy managing director in the Irvine office of the “full service” public affairs, public relations
and political consulting firm that also has offices in Sacramento and is owned by old GOP warhorse Curt Pringle's former lackey Jeff Flint.
Now, I still can't shake the moment from my mind when Amante–with members of Orange County Big Labor cheering him on–sarcastically berated foes as know-nothings as he publicly lobbied the feds on behalf of a plan to carve a private toll road into a public state park in South County. The then-chairman of the Transportation Corridor System Board of Directors argued the pursuit of the almighty dollar must trump concerns about fouling San Clemente's pristine shores.
But the Orange County grand jury faulted Amante for something completely different. He and Laguna Hills City Councilman L. Allan Songstad Jr. were serving together as officers of the Orange County division of the
League of California Cities and the break-away Association of
California Cities-Orange County when they marched into Chapman University President James Doti's office.
Loaded for bear.
Before that meeting, Barbara Kogerman, who was running for a Laguna Hills City Council seat in 2010, suspected City Manager Bruce Channing was over-compensated. To prove this, she sought to find out how much administrators were paid in Orange County's 34 cities, which should be easy to figure out given it's supposedly public information. But what she discovered was a murky world where exact amounts are hidden in documents over-loaded with therefores, whereases and a little of the ol' voodoo economics. (Probably courtesy of tricks passed on by lobbyists. Just sayin'.)
Kogerman needed help. To the rescue came Fred Smoller, director of the public administration graduate program at Brandman University, a Chapman school for working professionals. Smoller loaned Kogerman two graduate students for her project, thinking it would be a good public-administration exercise. They dug in and, thanks to numerous Public Records Act requests, discovered Channing, for a city with a population shy of 32,000, was earning more than $460,000 in total annual compensation, the highest among OC's city administrators, including those serving municipalities with more than triple the population.
Thanks to the media attention generated by the countywide compensation report, Kogerman would go on to win her council seat, the students would receive local, state and national honors and praise, and the shadowy sins of other cities would be exposed. The Los Angeles Times leapfrogged from Kogerman's report to look into public funding of administrators throughout Los Angeles County, resulting in the Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Bell scandal.
Smoller's “prize” would come after Amante and Songstad met with Doti. The upshot: they were shocked, SHOCKED, that academic research would influence a local political campaign. They whined that Brandman U being mentioned on the cover of Kogerman's report and grad students Cindy Smith and Janice Voshall being listed as authors gave the appearance the private institution authorized the shaming of public officials (which, of course, is fine in Orange County so long as the public officials are elected Democrats other than Tom Daly).
Doti agreed with Amante and Songstad, and disapproving dialogue between the university, the councilmen and their nonprofit's executive staff would continue for months. Speaking of dialogue, anyone else wonder how Dialogue with Doti and Dodge is going to cover this? Or if they are going to cover this?
We digress. Facing the possible loss of his academic career, Smoller stepped down as the Brandman public administration program director, noting in his resignation letter that the Association of
California Cities-Orange County and “other disgruntled elected leaders” had
convinced Doti the professor “could no longer be an
effective public face for the program.”
The blowback to Smoller so infuriated Kogerman that she fired off a letter of her own, to the Orange County grand jury. And that resulted in the investigation that concluded:
City officials apparently misused their
membership in a non-profit corporation established on behalf of public
entities to promote their own political agenda by using their status
with that organization in an effort to influence the officials at a
City officials arranged a meeting with the office of a university
president indicating they were to introduce the executive director of
the non-profit entity, when their intentions were to influence the
university to investigate and discredit the report where students were
assigned as interns to a political campaign by the Masters in Public
The influence wielded by city officials appears to have been an
attempt to cause the officials of a local university, to exert influence
on a member of their faculty.
City officials may not have been forthcoming with
the Orange County Grand Jury in their testimony about the primary
purpose in meeting with university officials and the facts and
circumstances related thereto.
It wasn't difficult for the grand jury to conclude the councilmen and the nonprofit association had swayed Doti given language in their communications obtained by investigators showed the exact same language was used in Smoller's resignation letter.
The grand jury recommends that Tustin and Laguna Hills: review the conduct of Amante and Songstad "and determine what action should be taken so as to prevent
future acts of misfeasance”; provide them "continuing ethical training”;
and refrain from "attempting to exercise influence
over public and private educational institutions.”
As you'd expect, Amante and Songstad tell the Orange County Register–whose OC Watchdog
was all over this from the beginning–that the grand jury "got it all wrong,” that they did nothing improper and that they have no plans to
In an email to the Weekly, Kogerman writes she caught a whiff of the misfeasance the grand jury blasted as it was happening.
"I knew back in 2010 that certain elected officials and public entities were angered by the scrutiny I was focusing on senior management compensation, but I never expected them to go to such appalling lengths to interfere in the elective process,” she states.
"We could have engaged in a beneficial dialogue on the compensation issue. Instead, they chose the low road, in the process dishonoring themselves and the offices they hold. Good people don't do bad things–whether illegal, or unethical.”
Kogerman wants more for Amante and Songstad than a grand jury wrist slap.
"Persons who abuse the trust of the electorate must be held accountable and must step down,” she maintains. "Such egregious conduct must not be allowed to go unpunished but must be met with consequences that send a powerful message to other public officials. This report cannot relegated to the 'politics as usual pile.'”
As for Smoller, he writes curtly in his own email, "The only thing I can say at this time on the record is that I am gratified that a neutral third party has investigated and reviewed this matter. I support their recommendations.”
Sounds like someone needs a lobbyist to protect his total compensation package. Hey, you know who he should call?
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before "graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.