The legal careers of two Orange County supervisors and whether they intersect with their public duties are raising questions among good government and ethics experts.
Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Shawn Nelson are both prominent local attorneys, and each report substantial income from their law firms on state-mandated disclosure forms. Spitzer has reported receiving up to $100,000 annually since he took office in January 2013, and Nelson more than $100,000 in each year since he become supervisor in 2010.
But beyond that, very little is publicly known about who their clients are, or more specifically, how their income is generated.
In large measure, these unknowns are due to the scope of the state's disclosure requirements. Elected officials in California who are also attorneys are generally required to list clients who paid their law practice at least $10,000 per year, if they’re the sole owner of the practice. The dollar threshold is higher if they just have a partial ownership stake in the firm.
There are concerns that go beyond specific questions of reported income and/or ownership.
In Nelson’s case, a recent advertisement for Rizio & Nelson featured Nelson prominently, listing him as “of counsel” to the firm and his title as a county supervisor.
A leading government ethics expert says that while elected officials shouldn’t be penalized for “maximizing their honest income,” the ad doesn’t seem to pass the “sniff test.”
“At a certain point it’s just a matter of good form, or good taste,” said James Abruzzo, co-director of the Institute of Ethical Leadership at Rutgers Business School. “There are certain things that just don’t pass the sniff test, and I think that this just might be one of them.”