This morning, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office issued a bombshell press release announcing that it has launched an investigation into one of its own divisions, the Public Administrator’s Office. That office, along with the Coroner’s Office, was put under the purview of the County Sheriff back in February 2015, meaning recently appointed Sheriff William Honsal is also the county coroner and the public administrator. (County supervisors OK’d a nice pay bump for the extra work shortly after former Sheriff Mike Downey took it on.)
One of the main duties of the public administrator is serving as executor of the estates of people who die without a will. (Also, relatives of the deceased sometimes pay the county to handle this chore.) This “probate” process involves gathering the assets of the person who died — their house, car, jewelry, investments, etc. — and liquidating them according to strict guidelines laid out in state law.
One of those guidelines, spelled out in California government code section 27443, makes it illegal for the public administrator or any of his deputies to buy those belongings. In other words, no one employed by the Sheriff’s Office can purchase (or otherwise acquire) the stuff being handled by the Public Administrator’s Office.
The punishment for doing so, according to the law, is a $1,000 fine, a year in jail, or both. The law further states, “Upon conviction of this section a person forfeits his office.”
This morning’s press release suggested that there have been violations of this law. “This investigation,” it noted, “is being conducted due to an inquiry and a complaint that was received by the Sheriff and Lt. Ernie Stewart.”
The inquiry, at least, came from the Outpost. Here’s why: Early this month we received an anonymous tip regarding the estate of Fred Hawkins, Jr., a Eureka man who died on March 4 at the age of 68. We were told that the public administrator was handling his estate, and the office had found no heirs of Hawkins. He’d had no children. Both of his parents were deceased. No aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews or cousins could be found.
Our source grew suspicious after learning that Fred’s old Corvette had been sold to a sheriff’s deputy. The source also said Hawkins’ old utility trailer wound up on the property of Eureka Mayor and former county coroner Frank Jager, who told him it had been sold to a local Boy Scouts troop for $200, which the source suspected was well below market value. (Documents obtained by the Outpost confirmed that the trailer was sold to the Boy Scouts of America for $200.)
The Outpost began investigating, interviewing Stewart and filing a California Public Records Act request for records of all probate cases handled by the Public Administrator’s office since the beginning of 2016.
Partway into our investigation, the Outpost received an anonymous letter, sent via U.S. Postal Service with no return address. It alleges widespread corruption of the public administrator process under former Coroner/Public Administrator Dave Parris. It claims that Parris embezzled money; that he allowed his wife to buy estate items with low-ball bids placed under her maiden name,; that he hired his own children to fix up estates, paying them three times the normal rate; that he and his family members purchased vehicles for themselves at well below Kelly Blue Book value; and more. (Honsal addressed these allegations in the interview transcribed below.)
It also claims that Lt. Stewart led an investigation into these allegations shortly after the coroner/public administrator office was subsumed into the Sheriff’s office, and that former Sheriff Mike Downey colluded with other county officials to cover up the investigation and its findings.
“There are several Sheriff’s Office personnel that are unhappy with the cover-up of Lt. Stewart’s investigation,” the letter states. “Corruption and conspiracy to cover this up needs to be investigated and those involved need to be terminated and brought up on criminal charges.”
Early this week the county responded to the Outpost‘s Public Records Act request, turning over a list of all estates since Jan. 1, 2016, for which the public administrator has been named executor, along with a list of assets from each estate and the dollar amounts received for them.
The information answered some questions and raised others. For example, documents show that Eureka business Anglin Second Hand regularly purchases estate items from the Public Administrator’s office simply by listing which ones they’d like to buy and the prices they’re wiling to pay, then including a check along with the bid. Does anyone else get an opportunity to bid? If not, what incentive does Anglin have to pay fair-market value?
Anglin purchased a number of items from Fred Hawkins’ estate. They paid $10 for his Stetson cowboy hat, another $10 for his Danish modern cabinet, $20 for a rattan love seat and $20 more for a “blonde dining table.” They sent $200 for a full box of “silver Mint proof coin sets from the 1990’s” and $130 for miscellaneous items from his garage and the upstairs of his house, “including, but not limited to the following: tools, bike, kitchen items, hats, pictures, Army uniform c1970s, camping gear, old lawn mower, books, clothes, etc.”
The Sheriff’s Office press release says the investigation will be conducted jointly by District Attorney Maggie Fleming’s office and an independent investigator hired by the Sheriff’s Office.
Shortly after the press release was issued this morning, we sat down with Sheriff Honsal to ask about the allegations, the investigation and his commitment to transparency and accountability.
Below is a transcript of our conversation.
Outpost: When did the investigation begin?
Honsal: I would say that, once you made the inquiry to the coroner’s office about that, that’s when Lt. Stewart brought forward the issues to me. That’s when the investigation started.
When I spoke with Lt. Stewart he said there was nothing to hide, the Coroner’s Office does everything by the book, there are multiple checks on his authority. He gave the impression that there was no need for an investigation, that everything was on the up and up. So what did he come to you with after my inquiry that made you start this investigation?
I don’t want to get too specific into the investigation because I want the independent investigator at the DA’s Office to evaluate the entire investigation and then make a referral to the DA based upon that, but the idea is there is a government code section that basically says no property shall be sold to any current employees of the Coroner’s Office or Public Administrator. So at the time, whether it was known or unknown at the time — the government code — the fact is that there was a couple pieces of property that were sold to employees of the county. So at that point in time I need to do an investigation.
I assume that if Lt. Stewart came to you with that information he must have known there was this government code section. Or you must have known.
Well, I think it was discovered that this government code was in place, and at that point in time that’s when this investigation started. So, you know, it was — without getting too much into the weeds of the thing, once we knew that there was a potential criminal investigation, at that point in time I had to start an investigation to get to the bottom of things to see, what are the protocols, what are the policies and procedures in place at the Public Administrator’s Office, and then what needs to be changed immediately, and then start an administrative investigation.
This started for me with a tip about a specific estate. A guy named Fred Hawkins passed away and I was told a couple of things that seemed a bit shady — parts of his estate that ended up being sold off. Specifically, he owned an old Corvette that got sold to a sheriff’s deputy. And when I brought that up with Lt. Stewart he told me in a more or less matter-of-fact manner that it got sold to a sheriff’s deputy. Did he know at that time about this government code section that makes that against the law?
I don’t believe so. I don’t believe so, but the fact is there are strict rules with an investigation, when you’re talking to police officers and those kinds of things, so proper notice has to be given before we can ask those questions. That’s why the investigation has to be conducted by the book, proper notice has to be given for the DA and an outside investigator to come in and ask those questions.
Those are the kind of questions the public needs to know, and we need to know as far as what they knew at the time. And is this the way we liquidate property? Is this the way it’s supposed to be done? And if it’s not, why was it done that way? If it’s something to where it’s a policy/procedure issue then we will create new policies and procedures to make sure this never happens again.
I guess I’m still trying to figure out the sequence of events. … At what point did either Lt. Stewart or you realize that a law had been broken?
Right, so during this time, during your inquiry, that’s when it was discovered that there was a government code section. That’s when Lt. Stewart brought it to my attention. At that point in time, that’s when the investigation started. And I just want to kind of leave it at that right now, because I can’t get too [much] further into it because that’s where the investigation starts.
We have to have an investigation that goes to the DA that is by the book and by the law. She’s got to evaluate all the facts at the same time.
I guess the logical next question is why wouldn’t the deputy coroner know about the existence of that law? It seems like a pretty fundamental law for doing that job.
It’s a very good question. And so that’s part of the reason why this investigation is going forward, is why was there not understanding of that law and knowledge of that law? And why wasn’t there a policy preventing this from happening sooner? And I believe that through the course of the investigation that question is going to be answered. And then, how long has this been occurring?
That was going to be another question, because the letter alleged that this was a common practice under [former Coroner] Dave Parris. Do you know anything about the truth of those allegations?
I know that there have been allegations, and I know that we keep strict records over at the Public Administrator’s Office that show how all the properties have been distributed, have been sold. And so I believe we’re going to get to the bottom of this — how often it has occurred and where it started. All those record still exist from the previous administration, and so we want to get to the bottom of it. And I have no reason right now to think this hasn’t gone on for years.
Your press release mentioned “estate property that had been sold to past and present employees.” I mean, the Corvette is an example.
That would just be one employee, so the fact that you say “past and present” —
That’s right. So there are multiple current employees that property has been sold to. And then based upon that I believe that there are also previous employees that things have been sold to.
Are you able to comment on any of the specific allegations in the letter? There was a refrigerator, there was talk of automobiles. Do you know the specifics with that case?
I know the allegations. I am confident that the investigation will uncover the truth regarding those investigations. So I’ll just stick with that. I’m confident based upon the records that I know that are up there that we’ll get to the bottom of this. …
The press release also said that policy changes have been made. Can you get a little more specific about that?
I can. Immediately there’s no property that’s going to be transferred or sold to any county employees.
The other aspect of that is that we will not employ any family members or current employees to upgrade or enhance properties that are currently in possession of the Coroner’s Office.
How the Public Administrator works is if someone has passed away, doesn’t have a will, doesn’t have a known heir, as a Public Administrator you’re supposed to advise the court … . The court can put the Public Administrator as the executor or administrator of that estate. At that point we pay all the bills, we pay taxes, we pay funeral expenses, and we liquidate the real property, including residences, vehicles, jewelry, guns. All that stuff gets liquidated, and if there are no known heirs, if we can’t find any, the money turns back over to the state. It’s our job to find the heirs, and then once those heirs are discovered then it’s our recommendation; the court ultimately is the one that distributes those [assets]. So we have an attorney that represents us on those matters, on those formal probate cases, and that is presented to the Superior Court. They make the final ruling about how those properties are distributed.
But part of that is we maintain the properties. So if there’s a house, we have to make sure it’s maintained during the time of our possession. But we are not going to do things like upgrade properties to try to enhance the sale value or pay employees to clean up properties or those kind of things. And I believe that has happened in the past. But that is not going to happen in the future.
About the liquidation process, are there public auctions?
That’s a good question.
Because I saw in some of the materials I already got [as a result of a California Public Records Act request] Anglin Secondhand will send an offer with a check already enclosed. Does anybody else get a chance to bid on those belongings?
So there’s a couple different ways to do it. One is, once you have property the things that could really easily walk away need to be immediately possessed by the public administrator. That’s part of the coroner’s duty — they’re going in and looking for a last will and testament, if there’s no one there. They are looking for securing jewelry, guns, prescription drugs, those things that can just walk away. So that’s our job first.
Otherwise we secure the residence, and all the property then, it could be sold right out of our office. We could put notices that we have electronics, sofas, refrigerators, jewelry, guns, those kind of things here for sale.
Where do you put the notices?
We can do it right at the office. You can put it on Craigslist, you can advertise in the paper, you can do all that stuff. That’s how it’s designed to do.
What’s common for the office?
Well that’s part of the investigation. But I’m just telling you how it’s supposed to be done. And then also what they’ve done in the past is they’ve had secondhand estate sales, like Anglin Secondhand come in and they can offer for the lot. So they’re able to come in, say, “I’ll take this, this and this, a dozen, two dozen things. I’ll give you this flat rate for them.” Or Carl Johnson’s will come in and do the same thing, say, ‘We’ll take this, this and this, and we’ll try to sell it in our auctions over the next three months.” And then it comes in.
Do they get to keep the profits?
Yes, exactly. So once they say, “Here’s $2,000 for this property,” they take the property, they sell it for whatever they can. We take the money, put it in the estate.
The money that you got from them initially. It’s not sold on commission?
Nope. Nothing like that.
So part of the investigation is looking into whether all of that was being done properly?
Right. And, as we’re moving forward, how should it be done? How should this property be advertised? What’s the fair market rate for property? Because we’re asking public administrators, who are not, you know, they don’t value property on a daily basis, besides getting on the internet and doing research [into] what it’s currently selling for on eBay. How do you value used property? So that’s part of our investigation. And then also, us moving forward, part of our investigation is going to be making recommendations of policy and procedure, how things should be done in the future.
Can you tell me any more about how things have been handled up until this point? Is there any bidding that happens?
Right now, you know, there’s [clears throat] I don’t know of any bidding that occurs. Houses are sold through a normal realtor, and those kinds of things.
But another item from Fred Hawkins’ estate was a utility trailer that I heard ended up at [Eureka Mayor and former coroner] Frank Jager’s property. And I heard it was sold to the Boy Scouts, ultimately. But I’m just curious: How did they know about it? How did they get to bid on it? Did anybody else have an opportunity to bid on it?
Yeah, that’s something that we’re going to look into. I don’t know that.
The letter of that law says any person in that position [public administrator] —
Or their designee.
Yeah. They’re guilty of a crime if they do this. So it seems like, with Lt. Stewart having already admitted that this has happened, are you taking any action on that?
This is potentially a criminal investigation. So that’s why the District Attorney was initially consulted, and that’s why they’re involved in the investigation.
The letter that we got said there had already been an investigation into this that primarily looked at when Dave Parris had the job, before the Coroner’s Office came under [the jurisdiction of] the Sheriff’s Office. [It alleged] that a decision was made that because he had already left office no charges would be pursued. Can you comment on that?
You know, there were a lot of changes that were made at the very beginning of the transition, when the Sheriff’s Office took over the coroner and public administrator, and I don’t remember that happening, as far as — we did investigate how things were done and how things should move forward. And we made some immediate changes in how things were done. But part of the investigation now will be looking back at those [procedures] to see if there was any criminal intent there, if there was any criminal charges that could be filed — if there is any criminal conduct in prior administrations.
So we’re keeping an open mind in this whole thing. We take the allegations very, very serious. So we’re looking at it, and we’re going to be asking some tough questions. I have no reason to believe that Dave Parris isn’t going to be fully cooperative in this whole process. I’ve actually already contacted him. I let him know what was going on and he said, “Whatever you need. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Did you ask him if any of these allegations were true?
I didn’t because I’m not the investigator. So the independent investigator and the DA investigator will be asking those questions. Because all those things need to be taken serious, and there’s going to be follow-up questions. There’s going to be a lot of research that goes into it prior to any interviews.
And when you say you investigated past practices when the Coroner’s Office came under the purview of the Sheriff’s Office, was that a formal investigation? Or was it just an analysis of how the office operated?
It was an analysis of how things operated, and then, because this was something that was totally new to the Sheriff’s Office and how things worked, one, being a coroner, and, two, being a public administrator, and then trying to adhere to the probate code, and what that specifically says about accounts and estates and money and all this other stuff. So it was something that was taken very, very serious from the start, There were several conversations with the County Administrative Office about how this transition was going to occur, and the things we needed to do immediately. The investigation will look into all those conversations, all those recommendations and then take all those into consideration.
Did anybody in the Sheriff’s Office know at the time that these practices had gone on, selling property to deputies and county employees?
Um, I believe that there was some talk at the very beginning that this was going on. So I believe that was part of conversations that occurred.
And why wasn’t anything done then? Why weren’t charges pressed?
Right. So that’s gonna be questions that have to be answered. That’s gonna be part of the investigation.
Can you say now why it wasn’t addressed at the time?
All I can say is that’s going to be part of the investigation. That’s part of what we have to look at and see what we knew at the time and then how we have to go forward from here, and what’s the recommendation here. So when you look at the charge of what it’s saying [Government code section 27443] it’s a misdemeanor. So we have to look at that.
I believe it says a violation is punishable by a fine not exceeding $1,000 or by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year, or both a fine and imprisonment.
So it’s a misdemeanor.
OK. Is it a misdemeanor on each offense?
I’ll have to consult the DA, but I would imagine that it would be.
OK. Do you have any sense of how long the investigation might take?
I’m hoping the investigation will be wrapped up within four to six weeks. But it all depends on the availability of the District Attorney’s office and that investigator that I’m hiring.
And I believe another component of violating this law is that the person must be removed from office.
Is that your understanding as well?
I don’t know. But we’re looking into it.
Thank you for taking the time.
I’m happy that it’s out in the open. I’m happy that immediate changes are made, because this is something that’s necessary. It’s part of transparency and being a part of the public, that we have to maintain. And if we are not doing something right at the Public Administrator’s Office then we have to make immediate changes. We have to. And so if [the investigation] uncovers that there needs to be disciplinary action taken, we will take that action. But ultimately with the goal of making that office better, making it whole, and making sure that we do things by the book.
And if it does come out that past practices have been swept under the rug, you’re committed to pursuing those as well?
As much as we can. The thing is it’s, yeah. As far as criminal conduct and the statute of limitations I’m not sure what we can do. But, the fact is that the public deserves to know. So even if it’s a case that doesn’t get charged because of statute of limitations, we will talk about past practice and where we go from here.
Note: This post has been updated to specify that the Outpost confirmed the value and purchaser of Fred Hawkins’ utility trailer.