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Santa Monica Ethics Review Finds Lapses in Judgment
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Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica


By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

April 20, 2016 -- An independent ethics investigation into the Santa Monica City Council and City officials has found lapses in judgment that had “cascading consequences,” including threatening emails by Council Member Pam O’Connor that were not “mindful” of the City’s anti-corruption law.

The 57-page report by attorney John C. Hueston, made public Monday by the City, also recommends that the City Attorney’s Office either begin to dedicate a prosecutor from its office to enforce the Oaks Initiative, the city’s corruption law, or hire outside counsel to do so.

Delving into one particularly controversial dispute in 2014, Hueston documents the nine emails O’Connor sent in just three days to then-City Manager Rod Gould, upset about his decision to hire Elizabeth Riel as head of City communications. O’Connor regarded Riel as a political foe ("Santa Monica Council member Fought to Oust City Spokeswoman, Group Contends," August 26, 2015).

On the fourth day, Gould, who by then was apologizing for upsetting O’Connor, said he would rescind his offer to Riel, according to the report.

O’Connor has contended the emails were not motivated by either her politics, or Riel’s. She did not return a call for comment.

The report stops short of accusing O’Connor of violating anti-corruption laws in the dispute, and instead says she was “not mindful” of rules that prohibit the Council from either direct or indirect influence in hiring and firing.

“At best, Ms. O’Connor showed bad judgment in wording her e-mails in a way that had the foreseeable potential of influencing the City Manager’s hiring decision,” Hueston said.

“At worst, Ms. O’Connor consciously and intentionally attempted to influence the City Manager’s hiring decision.”

The activist group that urged the City Council to investigate the Riel matter and other disputes involving alleged corruption hailed the findings by Hueston as proof of their suspicions of wrongdoing at City Hall.

“This blockbuster report exposes incompetence, misconduct, and efforts to mislead the public and the City Council by the most senior officials in our City government,” said Diana Gordon of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City(SMCLC).

SMCLC asked for investigations in September and was rebuffed, with City Attorney Marsha Moutrie contending her office could not investigate because O’Connor and Gould were both considered clients. County prosecutors also declined, as did state investigators ("Conflict of Interest Probe of Former City Manager Unlikely," July 8, 2015).

In reaction, the Council voted in December to hire Hueston, a nationally-known litigator, to review the Riel situation and other allegations of wrongdoing.

“What is clear from the report," Gordon said, "is that the culture at City Hall that fostered this misconduct — and then tried to sweep it under the rug — must change.

“The City Council and City Manager need to restore public trust. At next Tuesday’s Council meeting we expect that they will lay out how those responsible will be held accountable and how the culture will change so this does not reoccur.”

City Manager Rick Cole praised Hueston’s work.

“The Hueston Report validates Santa Monica’s commitment to open government and transparency,” Cole said in a statement.

“In addition to constructive recommendations for enforcing the Oaks Initiative, it exhaustively documents the facts of Elizabeth Riel’s dismissal, identifying unfortunate lapses in judgment and pointing the way to improve our processes going forward," he said.

"It demonstrates yet again that we accept responsibility for holding ourselves to the highest standards of public service.”

Mayor Tony Vazquez also was pleased with the review, for which the City earmarked more than $400,000.

“Our City Council prioritized and invested in this independent report and will carefully review the findings and recommendations at our next Council meeting," Vazquez said. "Transparency is a top priority and it is our hope that this process will help strengthen our city practices."

The report also notes that after Riel was fired, “multiple councilmembers contacted Mr. Gould via e-mail to request an explanation.”

Gould declined to talk about it in detail, “claiming that he could not do so because he did not want to “violate [Ms. Riel’s] privacy rights by airing it” and he needed to protect the “privacy and confidentiality of the hiring process,” the report said.

In fact, Gould did not disclose “the extent of his communications with Ms. O’Connor” in any of his emails to councilmembers or in any subsequent conversations with them, Hueston wrote in his report.

All council members need to be “expressly” mindful of the City’s anti-corruption provisions, the report said.

Hueston also said the City’s email system should be used for all such communications – not their private emails, as was sometimes the case in the Riel matter.

“Almost all employees we interviewed had no understanding of the existing city e-mail policy," Hueston wrote. "We specifically recommend that the city manager instruct and train city employees to use the city e-mail system for all city business.”

The report, however, lays to rest the Council’s concerns about whether the Oaks Initiative of 2000 is actually enforceable at the City level. It said the City Attorney’s Office should assign a prosecutor specifically to such cases and can call in a special outside prosecutor if it deems that necessary.

It also recommends clarifying and toughening the Oaks Initiative -- which prohibits City officials from personal gain and receiving improper campaign donations -- and notes that although the law is considered an undue burden by critics, it serves an important function for the City.

Two other cases involving Oaks Initiative violations have been filed in recent years, both by The Transparency Project, a watchdog group.

One involved O’Connor, accusing her of accepting inappropriate campaign donations from developers when she was mayor in 2014. O’Connor agreed to return the money, and an investigation was not undertaken as a result ("Santa Monica Mayor Accused of Impropriety by Transparency Group," October, 9, 2014).

The second complaint was filed in 2015 and involved Gould’s decision to work for a private consultant with whom he had done business as City Manager after he left his City post ("Santa Monica watchdog Group Accuses Former City Manager of Violating Conflict of Interest Law," June 12, 2015).

Citing the financial and other pressures from being privately sued by the Transparency Project, Gould agreed to forego the new job.

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