Thursday, December 7, 2023

Mendocino County’s Auditor-Controller Suspended Without Pay Due to Criminal Charges

Mendocino County’s Auditor-Controller/Treasurer-Tax Collector Chemise Cubbison [Photograph provided by her]

On Tuesday, Mendocino County supervisors suspended embattled Auditor Chamise Cubbison without pay although the elected county official has yet to have a chance to enter an expected not guilty plea to a felony charge of misappropriation of public funds filed against her by District Attorney David Eyster.

Board members took their action Tuesday afternoon after being advised by an outside-hired attorney that they had the authority to bar Cubbison from her office and appoint a deputy county administrator in her place. Morin Jacobs of the San Francisco law firm of Liebert, Cassidy Whitmore cited a state labor code, but the provision refers only to an elected county Treasurer, and not specifically Auditor/Controller/Tax Collector, the combined positions that Cubbison was elected to hold.

Jacobs and her law firm have represented the county as outside legal advisers before. Jacobs did not return calls for comment, nor did individual supervisors after Tuesday’s surprise vote.

Cubbison’s attorney Chris Andrian said Tuesday he had never heard of such an action being taken against an elected official without a hearing or court adjudication.

“Can an elected official really be suspended without due process?” he asked.

Andrian said he is conferring with labor law attorneys on behalf of Cubbison.

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Cubbison declined to comment on the board’s action but her chief deputy spoke on her behalf.

“Chamise is without doubt a dedicated county official who is known for her honesty and integrity,” said Kikie DeLong, chief deputy Auditor. “The board’s action is premature. We don’t have any of the facts on the table yet.”

Carrie Shattuck, a candidate for the Board of Supervisors in next year’s election, addressed the board directly after it voted unanimously to suspend Cubbison.

“I think the board is really jumping the gun. Ms. Cubbison has not even been arraigned yet,” said Shattuck.

Shattuck said the move to criminally accuse Cubbison, and the board’s quick move to suspend her suggests an ulterior motive– “It’s very obvious now that we know why there was a contingency plan for a Department of Finance.”

Cubbison supporters believe county leadership, including District Attorney Eyster, wants to forcibly remove the Auditor so they can move ahead with a controversial plan to create a new Department of Finance.

Eyster addressed the Board of Supervisors yesterday morning during public comment characterizing media coverage of the Cubbinson case as “misinformation” and “speculation”.

Pushing back on claims that Cubbinson’s charges are the result of tension between the DA and the Auditor-Controller, Eyster said, “The single charge filed against each defendant flows from a criminal investigation that was not initiated by me or anybody else in the DA’s Office.”

In his comments, Eyster repeatedly referred to the Auditor Cubbison as a “county employee” rather than the elected official she is.

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During his statement, Eyster said he has no vendetta against the Auditor despite repeated run-ins with her over his office’s spending patterns. The District Attorney claimed the investigation that led to the felony criminal complaint he filed against Cubbison Friday afternoon was instigated by ‘outside’ sources.

In fact, the County Executive Office was told to refer questions it raised about extra pay allegedly wrongfully authorized for Kennedy by Cubbison to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office for investigation. Cubbison has said she believed the extra pay agreement cited in the felony charge was agreed upon by former Auditor Weer. He has refused to return calls for comment.

Sheriff Matt Kendall said the County Executive Office referred concerns about the arrangement to his office for investigation. “I assigned it to a seasoned investigator, and we delivered a fair and impartial report,” said Kendall. However, Eyster’s own investigators conducted further inquiries, ultimately prompting the DA to press charges against Cubbison and Kennedy.

The tension between Eyster and the Auditor-Controller’s office has been well documented as quarreling with three different auditors including Cubbison. 

In 2013, former Auditor Meredith Ford squared off with Eyster over his planned use of asset forfeiture money from largely drug-related cases to “basically pay for all of his office expenses.” Ford told county supervisors then that her review of federal guidelines surrounding the use of asset forfeiture funds “does not say that they are to be used for everyday operations.”

Eyster subsequently engaged in sparring matches with Ford’s successor, Lloyd Weer, also over the DA’s use of asset forfeiture funds, and travel expense reimbursements that Weer said did not conform to county procedures.

When Cubbison became Assistant Auditor-Controller, she too questioned what she characterized as Eyster’s refusal to follow county reimbursement guidelines.

For their part, County Supervisors ignored warnings from Cubbison and other seasoned county department heads such as retired Treasurer-Tax Collector Sherri Schapmire that combining formerly independent elected offices into one would create chaos and remove vital internal controls over county finances. They floated the idea of a new Department of Finance during that fierce debate.

Cubbison eventually was elected head of the combined offices after the board forged ahead, but the departments have been swamped by an exodus of experienced employees, a years-old software system that is still not functioning correctly, and delayed financial reporting and audits. Some board members have seized upon the continuing problems as justification for a new county Department of Finance.

In 2021, Eyster vehemently tried to block Cubbison’s appointment as auditor following former Auditor Weer’s early retirement. He then worked behind the scenes with board members on a plan to consolidate the Auditor/Controller’s Office with the county’s Treasurer/Tax Collector in hopes that move would eventually lead to a new Department of Finance as advocated by some supervisors. 

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Cubbison ran for election to oversee the newly combined offices, and she won to the chagrin of Eyster and her board critics.

The solidity of the County’s finances has  been relentlessly debated for several years but the only thing to emerge this year has been more turmoil at the board level, and now a criminally accused auditor suddenly suspended without pay.

Tuesday was expected to be a routine court appearance for Cubbison and co-defendant Paula June Kennedy, the county’s former payroll manager, but it proved to be a chaotic day with unprecedented political drama. 

The tumultuous day ended with the board acting to suspend the auditor who did not appear before the board to speak on her own behalf.

Attorney Andrian said there is no evidence of criminal intent on Cubbison’s part, nor did she personally benefit from any of the $68,000 in extra pay the county gave to Kennedy for work done during the Covid pandemic.

Deputy Chief Auditor DeLong said the board should presume Cubbison is innocent until proven guilty of any wrongdoing.

“They acted prematurely today. She has not even been arraigned,” said DeLong.

Entry of pleas from Cubbison and Kennedy on the single felony charge facing each was delayed until Oct. 31. Kennedy sought the delay because she is seeking legal representation from the county’s Public Defender Office.

At this point, DA Eyster so far refuses to answer questions put to him by this reporter about his perceived bias against Cubbison, and whether he has a conflict given his record of sharp disagreements with the Auditor’s Office over the span of his tenure as the county’s chief prosecutor.  

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