The Public Eye: El Dorado DA challenges payment to consultant



By Cathy Locke

A civil suit has been filed in El Dorado County against members of a political consulting firm, alleging that they engaged in illegal taxpayer-financed activities to support passage of a special tax measure.

The El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office, at the direction of the county grand jury, seeks to recover $10,000 in taxpayer funds from Dan Dellinger and Christopher Alarcon of Dan Dellinger Consulting. The Lotus-based firm was hired by the Pioneer Fire Protection District to provide consulting services related to a special tax measure on the November 2011 ballot.

Measure F passed with nearly 77 percent voter approval.

According to the July 26 complaint filed in El Dorado Superior Court, an initial $29,900 contract between the fire district and Dan Dellinger Consulting included mostly taxpayer-financed campaign activities expressly advocating passage of the tax measure.

Public agencies may use taxpayer funds to provide information on topics related to district finances, revenue sources and intended uses of the proposed taxes, but government code prohibits use of taxpayer money to advocate for a tax measure.

Dellinger said his firm acted properly, providing to the district only informational materials and handling the paperwork necessary to place the measure on the ballot. Voter outreach activities that the firm conducted were covered by private donations to a campaign committee, Save Pioneer Fire, he said.

Dellinger maintains that the complaint is politically motivated. County Auditor-Controller Joe Harn requested the grand jury investigation. Dellinger said Harn and District Attorney Vern Pierson are trying to put him out of business because he has conducted successful campaigns for several political candidates that they did not support.

“This is Chicago-style politics at its worst,” Dellinger said. “The public will see through this.”

Harn and Pierson denied any political motives.

Pierson responded in a written statement: “Mr. Dellinger can take whatever position he wants, but the facts are that taxpayers were forced to pay for a campaign to raise taxes on themselves. State law does not allow that. Our office, as well as the El Dorado County Grand Jury and El Dorado County auditor all came to the same sim

ple conclusion – that Dan Dellinger and Christopher Alarcon violated the law.” For his part, Harn said, “Routinely, I do not look at disbursements for small special districts. A member of my staff brought this to me and said, ‘This seems way out of line.’ “

Harn said his office raised concerns about certain payments to Dan Dellinger Consulting based on a June 2011 consulting contract with the fire district that appeared to contain services for illegal campaign activities and what appeared to be a promise of a $12,000 bonus for the firm if the measure passed.

He said the district revised the contract to eliminate the “bonus” language, and the auditor-controller’s office paid $10,000 in invoices to the Dellinger firm.

Harn said he has refused to pay a remaining fee of $12,000 to the consultants for preparing documents necessary to enable the county to collect the special tax on behalf of the district, calling the amount “outrageous.” He said other consultants have charged larger districts less than $400 for the service.

The grand jury report focuses on the activities of the consulting firm rather than the actions of the fire district board that authorized the contract. Deputy District Attorney James Clinchard said the grand jury’s order was to recover the money that allegedly was illegally spent by the board.

Ripley Howe, secretary of the fire district board, said he believes the $10,000 was spent on legal informational activities but added that there is a gray area.

“We were completely upfront about all of this,” he said. “We weren’t trying to hide the fact that we were a public board in favor of a parcel tax measure.” However, Howe said, “I was uncomfortable with how involved the consultants were with the campaign committee.”

At one point, Howe said, he asked the consultants not to come to the campaign committee meetings, but they came anyway.

The grand jury recommended that the additional $12,000 not be paid to the consultants pending an audit of allowable vs. illegal payments.

Howe said the board will not renew its request to the auditor-controller to make that payment. The board decided not to have the consultant perform those services – which involved identifying developed and undeveloped parcels to determine their tax liabilities – after the controversy arose over use of taxpayer funds. Howe said he subsequently learned that the state limits the amount that can be charged per parcel for those services. For the Pioneer District the total is in the range of $800 to $900, he said, not $12,000.

“We’re not fighting to pay that bill,” Howe said.


DA aims to improve IT



The loud hum of the HVAC systems cooling the data center serving the El Dorado County nearly drowned out David Russell as he pointed to two boxes in the large room. Both are servers, but one is much larger — and older — than the other. The cooling system, which takes up a large portion of the room, is also new. Both are part of an initiative to update the technology serving the county.
Russell, the deputy director of IT for the county, said the data room, which serves all of the official and governing bodies of the county, has been undergoing a large amount of improvements. The new servers allow the county to “host virtual servers,” Russell said. “We can host hundreds of virtual servers” off of a few normal servers. “We have a 40 terabyte cap.” The servers, in turn, are powered by new power supplies and cooled by new, more efficient HVAC systems. The old systems were “so far behind the times,” Russell said. A new security system guards it all.
“It’s all for the county and constituents,” Russell said. “We’re looking at e-fax, and soft phones versus VoIP,” or making calls using the Internet. “We want to ensure we are spending the taxpayer’s money the best way we can.” The systems cost less and are more efficient, Russell said.
The initiative to update the county’s IT department came about a year ago, when District Attorney Vern Pierson was offered the job as Chief Technology Officer for the county. He accepted and starting making improvements.
Pierson pulled up a live feed of the Board of Supervisors meeting that was occurring, though the meeting was in recess. Beneath the feed was the subject that had just been in discussion before recess, and the right of the feed was the PDF of the agenda.
“We’re using what’s available to communicate with the public in a more cost-effective, transparent way,” he said. Hence the live feed of the meeting, available on the county’s Website, along with the other information on the screen. “Anyone can watch.”
Another effort to modernize the county was in Pierson’s own office, with his deputy DAs being outfitted with laptops for cases. In an effort to go paperless, the laptops have access to a program that lists the court calendar, the complaint with charges against the defendant, a summary of the case and access to pieces of evidence.
Richard Pesce, an investigator with the DA’s office who developed the program and has a “significant IT background,” said it took a number of interviews with the attorneys in the DA’s office to get the program right. “I tried to make it pretty and intuitive. So far, so good,” he said. “Everyone has been very appreciative, positive and receptive.”
“Its intuitive to the user,” Pierson added. “A deputy DA tracks the typical steps of a case, and this makes it readily available. You can subpoena a witness, reset a jury trial. It enables us to make those big paper files go away.” He added that “even attorneys that were anti-paperless are very enthusiastic and use it.”
Normally, those steps, along with many others involved in the case, “consumed manpower,” Pesce said. “They had to hunt down the files if they were not in the bin. Now, they are updated immediately, they have access to it as soon as it happens.” The program interfaces with clerks at the DA’s Office to make this possible. In the future, there are plans to interface the program with the Sheriff’s Office, CHP, Placerville Police and the Public Defender’s Office. The process has already begun, and Pierson said within two or three months, the interface will be populated with files from law enforcement, eliminating the need to physically carry over copies of files, which can sometimes be hundreds of pages.
Pierson compared the system to the mobile data terminals in a sheriff’s patrol car, and Pesce said the terminal will also interface. “A deputy in the field types a report in, and it is shipped electronically over here. It populates the database with reports and evidence. It’s a significant savings on manpower and time.”
These changes came about because county’s IT had been “stagnant for a significant period of time,” Pierson said. When he was approached Chief Administrative Officer Terri Daly with the chance to take the position, which he describes as “part coach, part disciplinarian,” he jumped on it. “The culture towards information and technology was stagnant,” he said, and he was willing to change that. It was also cost-effective for the county for him to take the position, as he was already in a management role, the reason Daly picked him. “We began aggressively moving forward.”
From there, the changes began, from the data center and the new paperless system in the DA’s Office to simply moving county e-mails to Gmail and enabling the use of smart phones for county workers.
“A small number were happy with things staying the same, but things change. They need to get on board with that.” The goal, Pierson said, is “finding ways for the county to do more with less.”

Nissensohn sentenced to death for 3 killings



By Kathryn Reed
Joseph Michael Nissensohn will never have the opportunity to hurt another woman. On Tuesday, a jury of 12 in South Lake Tahoe said he should die for his crimes.
In October, the 62-year-old was found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder.
The remains of Kathy Graves, 15, of South Lake were found near the Mount Tallac trailhead in 1990, about one year after she was last seen alive. Nissensohn also killed Monterey County teenagers Tanya Jones and Tammy Lynn Jarschke in 1981.

Joseph Michael Nissensohn

He has already been in prison 15 years for the second-degree murder of a woman in Tillicum, Wash. When he was supposed to get out in 2008 El Dorado and Monterey county prosecutors agreed to wrap their cases into one and filed charges before Nissensohn was freed.
It took jurors only 90 minutes to complete this phase of the more than six-month trial.
As soon as the clerk in the El Dorado County Superior Court read the verdict Nissensohn was handcuffed. The entire time he sat staring straight ahead in the direction of Judge Suzanne Kingsbury.
“I wouldn’t say it was disturbing, but you definitely feel a lot of responsibility is on your shoulders,” Bob Grant, one of the jurors, told Lake Tahoe News after the Dec. 10 sentencing verdict. “You are very careful to pay attention in court to make sure you get the right verdict.”
El Dorado County sheriff’s Lt. Pete Van Arnum was in the courtroom. Afterward he called Nissensohn a dangerous man. Van Arnum was with a different department when Grave’s skull was found near Fallen Leaf Lake.
He said it’s good Nissensohn was sentenced to death; pausing to wonder if these are the only crimes the criminal committed.
Nissensohn is scheduled to be formally sentenced March 18.
Since El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson was elected in 2007 his office has pursued the death penalty three times and has won them each time. Prior to today, David Zanon was the last person sent to Death Row from El Dorado County. This was three years ago for the murder of California Highway Patrol Officer Scott Russell.
California has more than 700 inmates on Death Row. Clarence Ray Allen on Jan. 17, 2007, was the last person executed. The controversy of using lethal injection is creating the logjam.