In a sharp escalation of a running political battle between two elected Mendocino County officials, a felony criminal charge of misappropriation of public funds was filed Friday against County Auditor Chamise Cubbison by District Attorney David Eyster.
Eyster’s filing of criminal charges against Cubbison also names Paula June Kennedy, the county’s former payroll manager who the DA alleges was the recipient of $68,106 in allegedly unauthorized pay.
In a short two-page complaint the District Attorney offers the briefest of explanations behind his decision to charge Cubbison and Kennedy. Eyster contended that the two veteran county employees “knowingly, unlawfully, and serially” misappropriated public funds that were paid out to “defendant Kennedy” and were not authorized by law or by a majority of the sitting Board of Supervisors.
Cubbison’s attorney Chris Andrian of Santa Rosa immediately dismissed Eyster’s contentions against his client late Friday afternoon.
“I have reviewed all the evidence in this case, and I have found nothing to indicate Chamise engaged in any criminal conduct. Among other things there is no assertion by the prosecution Chamise received any personal benefit, or that any of the public funds found their way into her pockets,” said Andrian.
Andrian said on the contrary he believes that “When all the evidence is presented in open court, it will more than vindicate Chamise and will show that she is a loyal, dedicated, and competent public servant.”
Cubbison is believed to have relied on an agreement reached by retiring Auditor Lloyd Weer and her co-defendant, Ms. Kennedy, before she took over as head of the office for not contesting the payments to Kennedy.
Weer could not be reached Friday for comment on his role in a pay deal that led to a criminal complaint.
DA Eyster, his chief Assistant DA Dale Trigg, nor the office’s chief investigator Andrew Alvarado responded to a written request for elaboration on the misappropriation of public funds allegation. Eyster for months now has refused to answer local media inquiries about actions he takes, or the reasons why.
Kennedy, who is known as ‘PJ,’ lives near Elk on the Mendocino Coast. She too could not be reached for comment on the criminal accusation she now faces.
Kennedy was placed on administrative leave by Cubbison after the pay dispute unfolded, and she eventually was terminated a year later. Kennedy’s pay pact for extra work was originally reached with retiring Weer during the Covid pandemic.
Attorney Andrian said the facts will show that Kennedy performed the work she was paid for no matter the method.
“The county got the benefit, employees were paid, and more importantly, not one dime went into the pocket of Chamise. There is no criminal conduct on her part here,” said Andrian.
Andrian for now declined to weigh in on how an ongoing dispute between the DA and Auditor’s Office under Weer, one that escalated when the Board of Supervisors forced consolidation of the Auditor/Controller and Treasurer/Tax Collector offices, might factor in the DA’s action. Eyster backed the controversial consolidation and launched his criminal investigation after County Supervisors learned of the extra pay to Kennedy.
Cubbison supporters contend that the DA is waging a vendetta against her because she, and the Auditor before her, have questioned staff travel expenses and his use of asset forfeiture funds from drug-related cases.
Their dispute blew up publicly in September 2021 when retiring Auditor Weer recommended that the Board of Supervisors appoint Cubbison, his top assistant, to fill the 16 months left in his term.
Eyster, in an unprecedented move, appeared at a board meeting where Cubbison’s appointment was to be considered and voiced strident opposition.
The DA publicly argued Cubbison was not the “right person” to fill the Auditor’s position. At that meeting, he distributed two 14-page documents, mostly copies of internal emails that outlined technical aspects of expense reimbursements that Eyster claimed showed the Auditor was wrong and that he was right regarding spending practices.
Cubbison at that stormy session stood her ground, declaring that “the role in the auditor-controller’s office is not always popular.” She also said she would not “be intimidated” into authorizing what she felt were improper payments.
Three months later, with Eyster’s encouragement but over the opposition Cubbison and other experienced county officials, the Board of Supervisors voted in late December 2021 to consolidate the formerly independent elected offices of Auditor-Controller and Treasurer-Tax Collector, eliminating one elected county position. Cubbison subsequently ran for election and was elected to lead the combined offices.
Some board members, urged on by Eyster, favor creating a new County Department of Finance to oversee the functions of the combined county offices.
Since the board’s forced consolidation, the combined offices have struggled with staff shortages, an exodus of experienced employees, and new computer systems that have delayed accurate financial reporting and aggravated uncertainty about the county’s true finances.
Cubbison’s office is nearly caught up with two long overdue fiscal reports, but is still dealing with a state audit launched in early September because of Supervisors’ complaints they could not get updated financial reports.
The DA’s new criminal filing tops several months of chaos surrounding the combined offices, and the county’s financial status, and seems likely to add to the uncertainty about the County’s current financial state.
Cubbison and Kennedy are to be arraigned Tuesday in Mendocino County Superior Court on the felony charges Eyster filed against them.