Saturday will mark a full year since Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal announced that he’d launched an investigation into the “practices, policies and procedures” of his office’s own Coroner-Public Administrator Bureau. An anonymous complaint and questions from the Outpost had uncovered improper and apparently criminal practices among deputies in that bureau.

A year later the case remains under investigation — as far as we can tell — by the California Attorney General’s Office Department of Justice Division, though they have refused to provide any updates or even confirm that such an investigation exists. 

So, in the absence of criminal indictments, wrist-slaps or any other type of resolution to the case, the Outpost is taking a look at what has changed within the Coroner-Public Administrator Bureau of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office since this story first broke. Have safeguards been implemented to prevent past practices? Have any disciplinary actions been taken? Are deputies receiving the required training?

First, let’s briefly recap what happened to this point.

As last year’s Outpost investigation revealed, employees of the Sheriff’s Office and their family members had routinely been allowed to purchase items — often below market value — from estates of the recently deceased, estates being administered by the Public Administrator’s Office.

In other words, sheriff’s deputies were often given first dibs on the electronics, automobiles, furniture and other belongings of people who’d recently died, people whose estates had been entrusted to county officials. This is a violation of state law punishable by $1,000 fine, up to a year in the county jail or both. And while it’s considered a misdemeanor, anyone convicted of this crime “forfeits his office,” according to the code.

Receipts for such sales date at least as far back as 2013, when the Coroner-Public Administrator was an independently elected office. (It was consolidated with the Sheriff’s Office in 2015.) They include sales to four current sheriff’s deputies, a number of retired deputies and former coroner and current Eureka Mayor Frank Jager, plus assorted friends and family members of county employees.

Honsal had been on the job less than two months when this controversy erupted, and in a sit-down interview with the Outpost he said employees of the Public Administrator Bureau, and he personally, had simply been unaware of the law making these bro-deal-type sales illegal. That law, California Government Code Section 27443, has been on the books for at least 50 years. 

Honsal ordered his employees to return all the items they’d purchased from estates managed by the Public Administrator since February 2015, when the office officially came under the umbrella of the Sheriff’s Office. In that time deputies, former deputies and their family members had purchased numerous vehicles, including a Toyota 4-Runner, two pickup trucks and a 1976 Corvette, plus appliances, electronics, a firearm and more.

This 1976 Corvette was parked outside the county coroner’s office in the days after Sheriff William Honsal ordered deputies to return items they’d purchased through the Coroner-Public Administrator Bureau. | File photo.

Honsal initially said the investigation would be conducted jointly by District Attorney Maggie Fleming’s office and an independent investigator hired by the Sheriff’s Office, and he told the Outpost, “I’m hoping the investigation will be wrapped up within four to six weeks.”

But as the controversy grew, so did concerns about the integrity of the investigation, in part because several current and former county employees at the center of the inquiry had been political supporters of Fleming’s election campaign. In early July Fleming revealed that she’d reached out to both the FBI and the California Attorney General’s Office, encouraging them to take over the investigation, and in August the A.G Office’s Department of Justice Division did just that

There has been precious little information about the investigation since then. The Outpost has sent several emails to the Attorney General’s press office over the past year, but each time they’ve refused to comment. The most recent response, which we received last month, was typical:

Thank you for your inquiry. To protect its integrity we can’t comment on — even to confirm or deny — a potential or ongoing investigation.


-Press Office

Honsal told the Outpost via email this week that the Department of Justice investigation is indeed “active and ongoing,” and while he couldn’t say more about that, specifically, he outlined some of the changes he’s implemented over the past year. 

“The Public Administrator has a new policy and procedures manual in place that adheres to the California Probate Code and the Government Code,” he said. The 87-page manual, which you can read in full by clicking here, includes the full text of relevant sections of the California probate code, including section 27443, plus a conflict-of-interest policy, which states,

No estate property entrusted to the [Public Administrator] will be sold, transferred, or given away regardless of value to any of the following people:
  • Employee, former employee, or current volunteer of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office
  • Relatives or domestic partners of any employee of the Sheriff’s Office
  • Any person or company that has an active contract with or performs a duty for the Public Administrator’s Office
  • Any person whose receipt of the property may pose a potential “Conflict of Interest”, either actual or perceived
  • Any county public official
  • Any of those individuals listed in California Government Code section 27443

The manual also prohibits this list of people from performing work on any estate property. In the past, deputies and their family members were allegedly hired at above-market wages to fix up properties under the Public Administrator’s authority.

The Outpost also learned during our investigation that the Public Administrator Bureau hadn’t been following another law, California Probate Code section 7605, which requires all public administrators in the state to meet continuing education requirements from the California State Association of Public Administrators, Public Guardians, and Public Conservators (PA/PG/PC).

Honsal said this week that he is now a member of this organization, as are all deputy coroners and Public Administrator staff, and these employees are now meeting the organization’s education requirements.

The department is also using new, more detailed receipt books. Last year the Outpost examined more than a thousand hand-written receipts from the Public Administrator Bureau and found that many had incomplete information — listing a car’s make but not model, for example, or just initials or the first name of the purchaser. Others were simply illegible. Here’s close-up of one of the old style receipts:

File photo.

And below is a scan of a book of the bureau’s newly redesigned receipts, which must include “complete details, including properly identifying all parties and the estate associated with the property,” Honsal said. “This includes the [Public Administrator] case number and a complete description of the property.”

Photo courtesy Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office.

These measures are all designed to prevent any future violations of Government Code Section 27443. As for the violations of the past, Honsal said none of his employees have been disciplined — yet.

“Our office is waiting for the Department of Justice investigation to be completed before continuing with the internal investigation,” he wrote in an email.

All four of the deputies who the Outpost found to have bought property from Public Administrator-handled estates remain employed by the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office.

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