It has now been more than two years since an Outpost investigation revealed illegal activity among employees of the Humboldt County Coroner-Public Administrator Bureau and nearly two years since the California Department of Justice took over an investigation into those activities from District Attorney Maggie Fleming’s office. 

And yet we don’t know much more about the state’s inquiry today than we did two summers ago. From the perspective of the public, at least, the investigation appears to have fallen into a black hole. The Outpost‘s repeated requests for updates or information from the DOJ have been greeted with a stock bureaucratic refusal:

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

The state is entitled to stonewall this way, of course. Government Code Section 6254(f) provides an exemption to the state’s Public Records Act, allowing law enforcement agencies to withhold records pertaining to investigations, among other documents.

But the deafening silence leaves the residents of Humboldt County without a resolution to perhaps the biggest public corruption scandal in recent memory.

To recap: Over the course of at least five years, Humboldt County’s Public Administrator Bureau, which administers the estates of people who’ve died without heirs to settle their affairs, routinely allowed deputies and their family members to get first dibs and sweetheart deals in violation of state law.

Both before and after the Coroner-Public Administrator merged with the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office in February 2015, deputies, friends and family members were allowed to buy such things as automobiles, appliances, electronics, a firearm and more, often below market value, from the estates of the recently deceased.

Deputies, friends and family members were also allegedly hired at above-market wages to perform labor at properties belonging to estates being handled by the Public Administrator. Such transactions were recorded — often sloppily and/or incompletely — on handwritten receipts.

The forbidden transactions date at least as far back as the tenure of former Coroner-Public Administrator Dave Parris, who resigned in January 2015, and ran through the tenure of former Coroner-Public Administrator Frank Jager, who went on to serve as a councilmember and mayor in the City of Eureka.

Such insider dealings to public employees violate California government code section 27443, and anyone found guilty can be punished with a $1,000 fine, up to a year in the county jail or both. Plus, the law states, “Upon conviction of this section a person forfeits his office.”

And yet, two years later, the public has seen no repercussions for anyone involved. 

At this point, even Humboldt County Sheriff-Coroner Billy Honsal seems to be getting impatient. In a statement released to the Outpost last week his office said they haven’t heard from the Department of Justice since January, and the lack of closure in the investigation is preventing the Public Administrator Bureau from settling some estates.

As you may recall, Honsal launched his own internal investigation after these revelations came to light, and shortly thereafter he ordered deputies to return any and all items they bought illegally through the Public Administrator Bureau.

In the summer of 2017 the Outpost spotted numerous vehicles in the Coroner-Public Administrator parking lot that matched descriptions of cars sold to deputies, including a Toyota 4-Runner, two pickup trucks and a 1976 Corvette. Those and other items pertaining to the investigation have since been held in storage, and the Sheriff’s Office would like to tie up this loose end.

But like the rest of us, they’re waiting on the DOJ. “At this time, we have not been given an update from the Department of Justice regarding their investigation,” the Sheriff’s Office said.

We asked whether any of the current and former deputies who apparently violated the law have faced any repercussions, but the Sheriff’s Office would only say, “[W]e cannot comment on pending internal investigations, nor can we comment on employee disciplinary action.”

Last year Honsal outlined his office’s new procedures for improved accountability and corruption-prevention in the Public Administrator Bureau, which included more extensive training, a new 87-page policy and procedures manual and more detailed records-keeping.

At the time, Honsal said his office was waiting for the state to complete its investigation before continuing its own internal inquiry. That wait continues.

The statement that the Sheriff’s Office released last week concludes on this note of vaguely annoyed diplomacy:

“The Sheriff’s Office desires that the Department of Justice investigation concludes as quickly as possible; however we understand that this is an in-depth process that takes time. Sheriff’s Office personnel have been fully cooperative with the Department of Justice and will continue to assist them as they work to reach a conclusion to their investigation.”

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