Audit Finds Troubling Practices at Clerk-Recorder’s Office

Freddie Oakley in 2013
Freddie Oakley in 2013

In December of 2015, Clerk-Recorder Freddie Oakley suddenly announced her retirement. She had served as elected Clerk-Recorder since 2002. While publicly she was best known for her advocacy for same-sex marriage, those in the know knew her as someone who marched to her own drummer at best, and one who shunned conventional rules at worst.

A blistering audit report has highlighted just how bad things were run under the former County Clerk, and it is now on the shoulders of newly-appointed Clerk-Recorder Jesse Salinas to clean up the mess.  In his meeting with the Vanguard, Mr. Salinas trumpeted his “Corrective Action Plan” which seeks to address the concerns laid out in the audit – 16 in total.

The sloppiness of financial accounting is one thing – a serious matter – however, Mr. Salinas told the Vanguard that when it came to the key duty of counting votes, there seems to have been no problem.

“Although I was not here during that time, I do not believe that was the case,” that the internal problems of the elections office impacted the key duty of accurately counting the votes in Yolo County, he told the Vanguard.  “In fact, since my arrival I have been impressed with the tremendous hard work and commitment to accurate counting by everyone involved in the election process.”

If anything, the audit seems to pull some of the punches.  One of the key findings: “Numerous service agreements were initiated with outside parties, current and prior county employees, previously elected officials and other entities regarding various election activities that did not follow the county’s contract and procurement policies and/or have the approval of county counsel, or the board.”

The blame falls on Freddie Oakley here, the audit notes. “Based on our review the staff were acting at the request and directions of the elected official holding the office during the period under review. Additionally, staff were not provided necessary training and development over county contract policies and procedures, and appears to have been misguided on the interpretation of various Election Codes regarding exemptions over expenditures relating to Election Day events.”

On the other hand, some familiar with the situation explained that Freddie Oakley was simply not a rule follower.  There is a difference between doing things outside of the rules and doing things illegally.  There is a gray area between the two and that’s where Ms. Oakley “lived.”

Part of the problem here is that someone allowed these practices to occur and, while Ms. Oakley was an elected official, no one at the county level signing the checks seemed to be monitoring the situation or pushing back.

Freddie Oakley set up policies and practices in her office that were not best financial practices.

The audit further found, “Numerous material and supply agreements, including equipment purchases and software, were initiated with various outside vendors that did not always follow county procurement policies or involve the County’s IT department.”  Once again the blame falls on Ms. Oakley, with the report stating, “Based on our review the staff was acting at the request and directions of the elected official holding the office during the period under review.”

The findings on the use of purchase cards is troubling as well.  The audit found, “IT equipment such as hard drives, smart phones, IPads, IPhones, and laptops are freely purchased on the p-card. The office does not require staff to acquire approval or involve the county’s IT department or county procurement before purchasing equipment.”

The audit notes, “There is no tracking tool or inventory performed on the equipment and staff are unable to identify where some of the equipment is located. There are no tracking tools for disposed, loaned or rented equipment.

“The office employs a small number of staff and all but 3 have p-cards. Staff that no longer work in the election office maintains their purchase cards and continues to use them freely to book unauthorized expensive travel for training that is no longer necessary to perform their duties. A review of their p-cards identified airline tickets, hotels, parking, and payment for monthly cell phone services for their county issued cell phones.”

The corrective action here was simple – they canceled purchase card use for all except two individuals in the department.

Again, the audit notes, “Based on our review the staff were acting at the request and directions of the elected official holding the office during the period under review. Additionally, staff appears to not have been provided sufficient training and understanding of the appropriate use of the purchase cards.  Staff appears to have been misguided on the interpretation of various Election Codes regarding exemptions over expenditures relating to elections.”

However, others noted to the Vanguard that the county, for many of these years, was operating on a very tight budget and that these processes were employed not to cost the county and department money but rather as a way to cut corners in order to save money.  The office made a lot of judgments on equipment that were independent of other county departments.

The audit, some maintain, raises a lot of questions about process but they don’t raise a flag about purchases that were actually ill-advised or did not serve the best interests of the county.  Essentially, some maintain that all purchases were necessary and well spent.

The department was also hammered for hiring practices and other payroll issues.  The audit notes, “Based on interviews with staff, allegations were raised that the appropriate county hiring practices may not have always been followed.”

Poll workers were one cited problem, where the current practice included “entering up to four hundred names without social security number or federal tax ID number into a spreadsheet and processing them through DFS as one-time claims.”

Others told the Vanguard that, while this is probably not the preferred practice, the poll workers are required to fill out about 15 different forms in order to be poll workers and therefore it was believed their process was sufficient even if it did not follow county policies.

There were contracts that were signed that were ill-advised, unnecessary and resulted in no real product of value to the county.  Moreover, there were hiring decisions made similarly that were probably ill-advised and contrary to standard accounting policies.

Two troubling situations that the Vanguard was able to confirm came out of some of these conversations.  One case was a poll worker and volunteer, a fairly prominent resident with a history of predatory behavior toward young women and girls, being allowed to stay on as a poll worker and volunteer, even after he “harassed” the daughter of a county employee.

Then there was a contract from 2015 with a former election’s officer to do research on outreach to Hispanic youth.  The paper was of questionable value to the county.  The paper was co-written with an undergraduate from UC Davis.  The election official received $10,000 for this paper, while the undergraduate would later be hired at a $20 an hour rate.

Mr. Salinas told the Vanguard he was brought in to clean up this office.  He is working to implement the corrective action plan, including reviewing existing policies and the county manual.  He believes an update is needed for the county manual.

But, most of all, he is looking at a cultural shift in the office, with weekly reports and benchmarks.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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40 thoughts on “Audit Finds Troubling Practices at Clerk-Recorder’s Office”

  1. Barack Palin

    Staff that no longer work in the election office maintains their purchase cards and continues to use them freely to book unauthorized expensive travel for training that is no longer necessary to perform their duties. A review of their p-cards identified airline tickets, hotels, parking, and payment for monthly cell phone services for their county issued cell phones.”
    The corrective action here was simple – they canceled purchase card use for all except two individuals in the department.

    Let’s see if I’ve got this right, they no longer worked in the office but still charged for unauthorized expensive travel for training that was no longer necessary?  Is that code for vacation?  Travel and training to where, might it be destinations such as Hawaii, Las Vegas, Miami, etc.  So the penalty involved simply was to cancel their purchase cards?
    Maybe some people should lose their jobs.

      1. South of Davis

        David wrote:

        > Additionally, staff appears to not have been provided sufficient training

        > and understanding of the appropriate use of the purchase cards.

        I would be interested if David also gets “clarification” on the specifics of the “sufficient training” that they hope will teach the “former” employees that unauthorized use of a credit card issued by a “former” employer is not OK.

        P.S. Any idea if Freddie’s son in law (who she tried to give her job to) is still working for the Clerk-Recorders office?

        P.P.S. I believe hpierce has been a poll worker in the past, I would be interested to hear what he (or other poll workers) think of the new Clerk-Recorder…

        1. hpierce

          Met him once, and talked with him ~ 10 minutes @ the end of one of the mandatory training sessions for new/experienced poll workers, this spring… @ that time, he acknowledged he was still trying to ‘get the lay of the land’, particularly with the training of the poll-workers.  He was finding that the system set up by Tony Bernhard, and then further developed by Oakley (and their respective staff) was a well-oiled machine, and it is.  He was there to observe.  He didn’t ‘participate’ except to introduce himself and to thank us who serve in this manner.  Poll workers have ~ 1-2 hours of training, every election, and then work a 14-15 hour day (not hourly, just a per diem stipend [amounting to ~ $9-10 per hour]).

          So, with a brief snapshot on one small, but important part of the duties of the office, he seemed pleased and seemed to take an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach.

          The “regular” elections team, to the extent I’ve interacted with them over the years are knowledgeable, professional, helpful and friendly.  Universally.  What happens other than directly related to election day(s), I have too little experience to offer an opinion.

          I found Mr Salinas to be inquisitive, friendly, and sensed a high degree of professionalism… again based on a 10 minute one on one discussion.

           

  2. Sam

    then work a 14-15 hour day (not hourly, just a per diem stipend [amounting to ~ $9-10 per hour]).

    When is the legislature going to pass a law to rectify this racist injustice?

    1. hpierce

      VERY cheap shot…

      Poll workers “work” those ‘long hours’ 1 or 2 times a year (one time, think it was three, when we had an early presidential primary), usually in well ‘conditioned’ venues… the “profile” of the average poll worker (in Davis at least) is:  very predominantly white, generally either under 25 or over 60 years of age, and has served 5-40 elections… we are flexible on breaks (except @ ‘peak hours’)… and during the day, ‘boredom’ (fought by chatting with, sharing ‘wisdom’ [or BS], with each other) is more of a risk than muscle injury, exposure to methyl-ethyl bad stuff, heat stroke/exhaustion, etc.

      Your ‘point’ is ridiculous (being overly charitable) in this context…

      Try being a poll worker… you might like it… I know I have, for 20+ years… usually I donate my “compensation” to augment our other charitable giving… for some, it actually helps with affording “treats”… if the pay rate goes to “living wage” levels, given County finances, you’ll probably see a strong trend toward “vote-by-mail” only.  With a very few polling places available for those who register too late for the mail thing to catch up…

      In the polling locations I’ve worked, particularly in the last 4-5 years, ~ 40+% of the voters are listed as VBM.

      1. Miwok

        Being a poll worker once in Yolo County, I witnessed a Poll supervisor, or Captain, whatever they call it, defying and ignoring the rules they trained us to do. I imagine everyone has their own interpretation of voting and the training, but to send people away when we were told not to send ANYONE away, was to me very egregious. When I approached the Clerk’s Office after the Election I worked, I was ignored. They would not talk with me about it, or even note it.

        I also asked about the programming used, since I have some expertise, and was again unable to get questions answered.

        1. hpierce

          Wow… you experienced what you experienced, so cannot comment on that… I know that as both a judge and inspector, our teams were always meticulous of making sure we were following the training, and the law… we would correct each other if we felt something was amiss… for clarification, the inspector is the ‘first among equals’ at the polling place…

          The behavior you encountered, I suspect was an an anomaly, but if true, that inspector should have never been assigned in any capacity, again… reprehensible is the best term I can think of and still have it fit for polite discussion…

          Oh… never in all the elections I’ve worked (probably ~ 35) has anyone been sent away, or told them they couldn’t vote… they were always re-directed (wrong precinct), or given a provisional ballot (for Elections to sort out)… if some one from another County wanted to deposit a VBM ballot, we said sure, but know that it won’t be counted… that’s the LAW…

  3. Miwok

    On the other hand, some familiar with the situation explained that Freddie Oakley was simply not a rule follower.  There is a difference between doing things outside of the rules and doing things illegally.  There is a gray area between the two and that’s where Ms. Oakley “lived.”

    As you couch Ms Oakley’s “retirement” as just that, instead of being hired away as HillaryCA’s mole, I was surprised to read her Son in Law was not the boss, as recommended by the County Manager. Maybe the County Auditing will reveal more of this behavior in other departments. Not much different than the State or UC departments.

    A person who “marches to a different drummer” should raise a flag, instead of having Carte Blanche to circumvent policy. But apparently that is not a concern of the County, until after they leave?

    1. hpierce

      Freddie may not have been a “rule follower” as to County procedures, etc., but she and her staff were/are sticklers for following the Elections Code.  If there was/is a problem, just don’t see any evidence of it in the election day process.  That matters most to me…

  4. SODA

    Where did the audit come from, Grand Jury? And why did it take this long to identify financial sloppiness. Why aren’t there ongoing financial assessments of policies? I would say the CFO and CAO have some responsibility for letting this go on this long.

    Remember the way the absentee ballots were printed last time so that you had to tape them closed and the reason was that there were so many envelopes ordered ?

    What is Freddie’s position with the campaign?

  5. Robert Milbrodt

     
    The initial story in the Daily Democrat indicated such practices had continued for 10 years.  So, why is this now an issue?  Why did the County Administrative Officer (and Jesse Salinas, his agent) sign off on or allow these practices to continue for so long? 
     
    Who conducted the audit?  Do you have a response from Freddie?
     

  6. Joe Friday

    Frankly, I find the reaction to this to be a bit much. When the Daily Democrat published a similar story some weeks ago, it did not garner a single comment. However put it in the Vanguard and like the ridiculous “Envelope-Gate” story published about the Vote By Mail envelopes in June, people are “Off with their heads!” in overreaction.

    Who cares what happened in the past? Who focuses on the past to live their lives moving forward? Learn from it, don’t live in. It sounds like Jesse Salinas is not concerned about looking back, but moving forward.

    But let’s dive into the crazy: How about showing some actual knowledge about how the County works? After the Democrat article, I did some actual research on some of the stuff I had read.

    Let’s focus on the fiscal component: If you think that the Elections department actually makes payments to vendors, you do not have any idea about the structure of the local government you have chosen to live under.

    EVERY SINGLE bill or transaction that needs to be paid goes to the Department of Finance (previously the Auditor) for (1) APPROVAL and (2)PAYMENT. There are no, ZERO, checks written to entities for payment coming out of the Elections Department, EVER.  Look it up. The same name on your tax bill, is the same name that goes out on every payment made by the County. What is the most likely scenario?

    The Auditor is so incompetent that they allowed and approved payments for years without ever looking at what they were paying for?
    For years, the Auditor was in cahoots with the Elections Department to approve and distribute payments for services.
    The Auditor is actually extremely good at their job and for years had sufficient information and documentation from the Elections Department in order to approve and distribute payments for services.

    While there may have been other questionable policies and procedures in place in the Elections Department, the Auditor could have questioned any fiscal transaction at any time. I voted for Howard Newens when he was Auditor-Controller-Tax Collector and while I think he has been handcuffed by becoming an appointed servant of the Board, the fiscal expertise and guidance he provides the County has never been in doubt. If Howard and his team had ever found anything that needed to be addressed, I am confident it would have been. The fact that they never did, says a lot.

    1. quielo

      With a purchase card none of that happens and they look at purchases retrospectively instead of prospectively. From the article it seems that the purchase cards were a big part of the problem.

    2. Robert Milbrodt

      Joe Friday,

      I’m not sure why you are bringing the Auditor/Collector into this discussion.  If it was his job to oversee the Elections Office (it’s not), then clearly he failed.  The referenced report claims over $6 million in questionable expenses over a 10 year period.

      Oversight of County Departments is the responsibility of the County Administrative Officer.  It is just not credible to miss $600k per year, in one department!  Either Jesse Salinas is selling us a hill of beans, or someone was asleep at the wheel in the CAO’s office.  Is there another possibility???

        1. JMH

          Not correct…  The tax collector/treasury/accounting merged to DFS and the elections/clerk recorder/assessor merged to one.  DFS is headed be Howard Newens and clerk/elections/assessor is headed by Jesse Salinas (formally Freddie)

  7. MidCentury

    From the article it seems that the purchase cards were a big part of the problem.

    P-cards are not the problem. They save countless hours of time and money by putting the responsibility into the hands of people who have the appropriate knowledge to make prudent purchases, rather than wasting time in approval processes and having to justify the requirement to people that don’t have a clue of a purchase’s true value, but rather usually just look at the bottom line cost. My experience is that taking away P-cards causes a drop in productivity that dwarfs any savings.

    If poor purchase decisions are being made, then a little training is in order. Canceling the P-cards is essentially telling your people that you don’t trust them. How do you think this makes them feel, and will it make them better workers?

    I think this article is Fox News-like; trying to make a big deal out of not much of anything. “Blistering report” “Salinas brought in to ‘clean-up the department”? Really? My interpretation is that the Clerk Recorders office knows what they’re doing, knows what needs to be done, and uses the most efficient means to achieve their objectives. If this means they have learned to bypass some archaic County procedures in the process, then maybe a little better communication on both sides would lead to more efficient processes with the appropriate oversight.

    1. Barack Palin

      I guess you missed this:

      Staff that no longer work in the election office maintains their purchase cards and continues to use them freely to book unauthorized expensive travel for training that is no longer necessary to perform their duties. A review of their p-cards identified airline tickets, hotels, parking, and payment for monthly cell phone services for their county issued cell phones.”

    2. quielo

      Training is good. Firing people who knew better is also good. Voltaire’s comment in Candide, that ‘in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others’ is probably a good model for the current situation.

  8. skeptical

     
    As described, the misuse of the purchase cards is theft, which should be civilly and criminally prosecuted.  Cancelling the cards is not a corrective action.  If that was an appropriate corrective action, then there was no misuse. 
     

      1. skeptical

        “to book unauthorized expensive travel for training that is no longer necessary to perform their duties. A review of their p-cards identified airline tickets, hotels, parking,”

        This is theft, which the District Attorney has a duty to prosecute, and the County has a duty to seek reimbursement.  Who is in charge over there, Hillary Clinton?

  9. tj

    Hard to believe there wouldn’t be prosecution for theft or fraud in using p-cards for personal purchases.  Every employee, or former employee, would know that’s wrong.

    Re “failing to follow appropriate county hiring practices”, a few months ago I was curious about the very poor quality of many social workers.  Eventually the assessor’s office told me that “departments are allowed to hire unqualified people if they are working on becoming qualified”.

    The other questionable practice is that Human Resources does not send the names of the most qualified applicants to departments.  They send the names of everyone who qualified, and then supervisors can select whomever they want, which may be their friends and relatives, who were the least qualified or not qualified at all but just planning to get the required degree or credential sometime in the future.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Unless the misuse only violated county rules rather than actually constituted personal gain.  I asked Jesse Salinas but he’s apparently out this week.

  10. Robert Milbrodt

    tj

    Hiring unqualified line staff is not as problematic as having them trained, supervised and directed by unqualified managers.  That has been a long running problem in the Assessor’s Office, routinely swept under the rug every other year by the State Board of Equalization survey team.

    This article, however, is about the Elections Office.  We need more information to determine if these issues are with the CAO and current department head, or the prior department head.  I would like to see more information from these parties so that we are all better informed.

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