The man who signs billions of dollars worth of checks for Orange County said he sometimes faces a dilemma: The risks he must weigh if he thinks county officials have asked him to make an improper – or perhaps even illegal – payment with taxpayer funds.
As the county’s elected fiscal watchdog, he says he can refuse to issue the funds, exposing himself to potential felony charges under some interpretations of state law. Or he can issue the checks and possibly be held liable for not adequately safeguarding public monies.
That’s why Auditor-Controller Eric Woolery say’s he has spent two years petitioning county officials to give him his own lawyer. Failing that, he drafted state legislation, now backed by 45 of his counterparts up and down California, that would ensure every county auditor-controller can receive independent legal representation. The bill, introduced by state Sen. Pat Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, is one floor vote away from being approved and sent to Gov. Jerry Brown.
Woolery says the current setup in California’s counties discourages auditor-controllers from halting legally questionable payments because the fiscal watchdogs receive their legal advice from county lawyers who advise and are hired by the same county supervisors who often approved the payments in the first place.
“It’s obvious that there is abuse to intimidate my office from being the watchdogs that we try to be,” Woolery said. “I need an unbiased legal opinion.”
Several other auditor-controller interviewed said they have occasionally felt coerced to make legally questionable payments or thought county supervisors had tried to neuter them of their watchdog responsibilities.
“I really believe that (county supervisors) don’t want to share power and give us the tools to do our jobs: it’s self-interest,” Riverside County Auditor-Controller Paul Angulo said. “The supervisors have the allegiance of (county) attorneys. So right now, our leverage is nothing more than shaming people – writing a report and going to the board. How is that authority?”
At least initially, Woolery’s crusade drew fire from some politicians and lobbyists representing California’s counties, who worried that giving auditor-controllers their own lawyers could give them too much power to override decisions made by elected county supervisors. Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do has said in recent years that he doesn’t think department heads should have their own attorneys…