Awhile back, we wrote an article on an Orange County Grand Jury report titled, “The Use of Government Influence on Private Education Institution“. The report alleged that then Tustin City Councilman Jerry Amante and Laguna Niguel City Councilman Alan Songstad misused their positions as elected officials to unduly influence and discredit a report on city manager compensation authored by a couple of students at Brandman University.
When the report was issued, it was lauded by OC Supervisor, Shawn Nelson who honored the two authors, Cindy Smith and Janet Voshall, for their integrity and for bringing to light the incredibly high salary of high ranking government officials. The report became even more significant when the Bell scandal, outlining heavy corruption by that city’s highest ranking officials, became news.
Unfortunately, it also brought heavy fallout to Fred Smoller, the founder and head of the Public Administration Program at Brandman as well as the authors of the original report. According to the LA Times article, Smith and Voshall had to leave Orange County to find work. Smoller also wound up resigning from the program he founded:
Fred Smoller, who founded the master’s program in public administration at Brandman, accused college leaders of buckling to pressure from conservative local politicians and trampling academic freedom.
“The resignation was the only way I could draw attention to the backdoor politicking that threatened the independence and academic integrity of the MPA program,” Smoller said.
And, although Smoller remains at Chapman University (Chapman, Brandman, what’s the dif?) he has lost faith in the program he founded.
Cindy Smith summed it up when she said, “The Good Old Boys Club is alive and well.”
Jerry Amante should know. His efforts to establish a corrupt legacy of influence in the city of Tustin are well documented. Amante, for his part, claimed he and Songstad did not try to influence anyone. He claimed the grand jury report was inflated and incorrect. There was no influence put upon school officials. At one point, he slammed the grand jury saying that James Doti, Songstad and he were the only ones in the room (remember, the smartest guys in the room) and they were the only ones who knew what was said.
But that is not the indication from Songstad who, according to the report, said they did, in fact, discuss the issue with James Doti and made what the grand jury later construed as veiled threats to not hire any students from Brandman. Well, we know of at least two who have not been hired.
Fred Smoller, for his part, defended the students actions. He also refused to buckle under pressure to release their email addresses and phone numbers to Laguna Hills City Manager, Bruce Channing, then the highest paid (and apparently most angry) city manager in Orange County. Channing did get one thing: Smoller agreed the title page should not carry the institution’s brand and that was subsequently changed.
Remember the League of California Cities? They are one of the chief lobbying and quasi-governmental entities that really run the government. In essence, it’s a club for local politicians where the makers and shakers throughout the state decide in unison what’s best for us. Amante and Songstad, as members of the club, asked the League to respond to the report. Shortly after the League refused, Orange County broke away from the League and formed a separate good-old-boys club known as the Association of California Cities-Orange County. Yup, that’s right. When the conservatives couldn’t get their way, they stamped their feet and took their ball home, leaving Orange County with even less influence in Sacramento than it had before.
We’d like to get Amante’s side of the story but, according to the Times story, he isn’t answering the phone these days. I doubt any of the other players are either.
Alas, we may never know whether lies or truth came out in the Grand Jury investigation. A lawyer hired by Fred Smoller was unsuccessful in getting the transcripts of grand jury session released to the public. The lawyer who headed the investgation for the grand jury stamped the report “particularly sensitive”.
Barbara Kogerman, the one who commissioned the report to begin with is now Mayor of Laguna Hills. During the investigation, she had been accused of making the report a campaign piece. Perhaps so. But, it was also a factual piece of information that should have been brought before the public long ago when the city manager’s office stopped being about public service and began being sold to the highest bidder.
So, where are they? According to the Times article, Cindy Smith is selling insurance in Phoenix, Voshall works for the United Nations and Smoller is at Chapman University hoping to start another public administration program. All of them have found a higher calling. Talk about a blessing in disguise.
I am not a fan of the Orange County Grand Jury. In fact, I have called for a permanent disbanding of this often ill-informed group of mostly retirees who wish to play politics. Most reports they issue are poorly researched and, even when recommendations are made to change, they are rarely acted upon. In fact, most agencies in the county know they can get by with a “Thank you, we will take it into consideration”. They are under no obligation to followup and their response can simply acknowledge the issue without providing remedy.
Once in a while, though, you have to give them credit for trying.
In today’s OC Watchdog column, the Orange County Grand Jury took on two councilmen, including our own former Mayor, Jerry Amante, saying they misused their positions to interfere with academic freedom at a local university. They are accused of attempting to influence Brandman University officials to investigate and discredit a report on city manager compensation authored by Laguna Hills city council candidate, Barbara Kogerman and two student interns in 2010. Kogerman, who was interested in determining just how much city managers were worth (remember, this was before the Bell scandal), utilized a couple of grad students from Brandman. Together, they researched and authored a succinct, well-written report on compensation for city managers in Orange County. That outraged local politicians, including Jerry Amante, who then sought to the bullying tactics we know so well to fix things.
From the Watchdog:
Suffice to say city execs were enraged. The grand jury got minutes from a meeting of city-types saying that Laguna Hills officials were “extremely upset” that Brandman could be so irresponsible, “and that the Orange County Register would put a Watchdog column on the front page…. A response is necessary in significant fashion, as the article indicates, first of a series. “‘
Now remember, this is before the Bell scandal broke. When the city of Bell exploded, Barbara Kogerman and her two interns, Cindy Smith and Janice Voshall, were limo’ed over to the TV stations to appear on national news shows. They received “awards and accolades” for the report. But, city officials, including Hizzoner, turned up the heat. Jerry Amante, who was Mayor of the city of Tustin at the time, Laguna Hills City Councilman, Allan Songstad Jr., and Lacy Kelly from the League of California Cities, paid a visit to Chapman University President Jim Doti in an apparent effort to squelch the report and punish the evil-doers. Doti stated that he was aghast. Simply, aghast. He claimed the Kogerman study was a “campaign piece, not a scholarly study”.
The OC Grand Jury called in our good former mayor and the others to ask questions:
The grand jury called in Kelly, Amante and Songstad, among others, and focused on that meeting at Chapman with Doti. Were the officials threatening to blackball graduates of the university by not hiring them? Songstad indicated “it was obvious to all concerned that it was not the best thing for them to do, i.e. to be criticizing city managers when they are the ones that do the hiring. And that the university president and the professor were bright individuals who could see the relationship and that it wouldn’t be smart to slam city managers. He acknowledged that there wasn’t any threat but it was just sort of self evident,” the grand jury says.
It is apparent that Songstad, of Laguna Hills, “was influencing certain actions of the professor in that some of the exact language that was to be used in the professor’s letter was the same as that which was communicated by the councilman,” the grand jury wrote. “It is equally apparent that the professor felt compromised and was attempting to defend the actions of himself and the students in raising public interest in the political process.
The issue of crediting the students with the authorship of the report on the cover page, notwithstanding the rather elaborate explanation in the attending foreword, was magnified beyond its significance, apparently for political reasons.
“The history of the communications is evidence of the existence of the pressure being brought to bear upon the university and the professor.
The Grand Jury report goes on to say that it appears the university as a whole was being influenced by the public officials for the purpose of manipulating circumstances related to a local election and that it borders on being unethical. Well, whoever said Jerry was ethical? Bully yes, ethical no.
The Grand Jury report specified four specific issues it had with the entire fiasco. Among them, city officials misusing their membership in the California League of Cities to promote their own political agenda. They also blindsided the university president with a ruse to introduce the executive director of the League when they really wanted to have the president investigate and punish the people who wrote such a damaging report. Most damaging to me? City officials may not have been forthcoming with the Orange County Grand Jury in their testimony about the primary purpose in meeting with the university officials. That would be Amante and his buddy Songstad.
Of course, Jerry Amante says, “You got it all wrong.”
Songstad and Amante are shaking their heads over the grand jury’s conclusions.
“I think they are completely way off base,” Songstad said. “I was not involved in trying to influence any personnel decision at the university — nor could I. My concern was with the association of Kogerman’s campaign piece with Brandman. That was the concern. The grand jury just got it all wrong.”
The point of the meeting was to make sure Doti understood that his university was being cited as the source of the report. “We weren’t acting on behalf of anybody but ourselves,” he said. “I have a right to go talk to anybody I want to, if I think that someone is acting unethically and attributing a report to someone who didn’t write it. I have a right. It’s disappointing the grand jury would think this was worthy of their time.”
Smoller resigned many, many months after the meeting with Doti, and Songstad doesn’t see how the two can even be connected. And no, Songstad has no plans to resign – and Kogerman has a lot of nerve to suggest he should, when she is the one who acted unethically by putting Brandman’s name on her report, he said.
Amante agrees. “I don’t know how the grand jury got it wrong, but they’ve gotten it wrong,” he said. “The findings don’t make any sense given what really occurred.”
Amante said he went to the Doti meeting to introduce Kelly from the League of Cities to him — and to tell him about an educational program for elected officials that the League was putting together that could be an internship opportunity for Chapman/Brandman students.
The idea that a couple of councilmen from Tustin and Laguna Hills could threaten to lock Chapman/Brandman students out of public sector jobs in every Orange County city is ludicrous, they said.”A single council person, alone, has zero power,” Amante said. “No council person can exert power without colleagues in agreement at public meeting with discussion. And the irony is that neither of the cities had anything to do with the meeting with Doti.”
So, Amante, did not seek to influence because he is just some hick councilman from Tustin? How does that compare with the bio on his new employer’s website (look under “team”) that sings the praises of Amante and his influence around the county in areas of local government and transportation? He is either one or the other, not both. And, let’s not forget Amante is a lawyer. So, he knows the penalty for lying to grand jury (assuming they are smart enough to figure if and when he lies). Come to think of it, he is a lawyer so, he could claim to be both (shades of Matlock).
So, once again, our fiscally conservative former Mayor, Jerry Amante, shows how much he loves schools. By virtue of the fact that he is a councilmember of this city, he brings discredit to the dais and the city itself. If you read this blog, you know what we think of Hizzoner and his efforts to singlehandedly manipulate power in the city and county. Now, we have an official organization, as lame as they may seem, saying the same thing. For once, the Grand Jury got it spot on. I can’t wait to see what the response is. Hmm. Maybe Jerry and his buddy from down south can sue the Grand Jury…