The California Attorney General’s office will not pursue criminal charges against any current or former members of the Humboldt County Coroner-Public Administrator Bureau following an “exhaustive review” of that department’s handling of the estates of deceased people.
As Outpost readers may recall, Sheriff Billy Honsal announced in June of 2017, mere weeks after he was appointed to the position, that he was launching an internal investigation into his own department — specifically, the Coroner-Public Administrator Bureau, which had been a separate county office until February 2015.
The investigation was launched in response to an anonymous letter along with questions from the Outpost regarding the behavior of deputies who’d been charged with administering the estates of the recently deceased.
A subsequent Outpost investigation revealed that, for years, sheriff’s deputies and their family members had been allowed to buy high-value items from estates being handled by the Public Administrator, often at suspiciously low prices and with threadbare documentation. Each of these purchases, which included electronics, automobiles, furniture, a firearm and more, violated California Government Code Section 27443 and was punishable by a $1,000 fine, imprisonment of up to a year or both. The practice dated at least as far back as 2013.
District Attorney Maggie Fleming launched her own investigation into the matter, though she quickly referred the case to both the FBI, which declined to investigate, and the California Attorney General’s Office, which agreed to look into it.
Since that time, nearly three-and-a-half years ago, the Outpost has been unable to get any information about the status of the investigation. Each inquiry was met with this boilerplate response:
To protect its integrity we can’t comment on — even to confirm or deny — a potential or ongoing investigation.
As we previously reported. 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.
Today’s announcement doesn’t shed a whole lot of light into what the state’s investigation found. In a letter to Fleming dated Nov. 18 (and stamped received on Nov. 23), Senior Assistant Attorney General James Root says:
Dear Ms. Fleming:
Our office has completed an exhaustive review of the public administrator’s handling of estate property in Humboldt County, a matter of concern which was referred to us by your office. Based on our review, we have closed our file and will not pursue criminal charges in the matter. We recognize the high level of trust placed in the public administrator and note that the Sheriff-Coroner, which now oversees that function, has taken significant steps to increase controls and accountability in fulfilling its duties.
In 2018, a year after the story broke, Honsal briefed the Outpost on a range of anti-corruption measures he’d implemented. To start, he’d ordered his employees to return all the items they’d purchased from estates managed by the Public Administrator since February 2015. He also implemented a new policies and procedures manual for the Coroner-Public Administrator Bureau, increased training and adopted more detailed record-keeping.
The Outpost has reached out to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office for comment on the AG’s decision not to pursue charges. [UPDATE: The HCSO issued a press release, which we’ve posted below.]
Below is a press release issued Monday afternoon by the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office:
On November 23, 2020, the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office received a letter (attached) from the State Attorney General (AG), indicating the AG will not pursue charges following their investigation into the prior conduct of the former Humboldt County Coroner-Public Administrator’s Office.
The need for an investigation arose in June 2017, when Humboldt County officials received an unsigned letter questioning the way the Coroner-Public Administrator had disposed of property belonging to deceased persons.
In July 2017, the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office requested assistance from the FBI, with the idea that the FBI’s experience with public corruption cases and available resources might lead to an effective and timely investigation.
Also in July 2017, the Humboldt County District Attorney requested the State AG take the case due to possible perception of a conflict of interest. The FBI declined to be involved, but the State AG agreed in August 2017 to assume the investigation and any subsequent prosecution.
Here’s a link to the letter from the Attorney General’s Office.
And here’s the press release from the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office:
The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office has been notified that the California Department of Justice has concluded its review of the past Public Administrator’s handling of estate property in Humboldt County and will not pursue criminal charges in the matter.
We would like to thank the Department of Justice for their thorough review of this case and recognition of the steps the Sheriff’s Office has taken to increase controls and accountability.
We recognize the errors that were made in the past handling of Public Administrator cases and have taken the following actions to ensure that the Public Administrator division of our organization adheres to the California Probate Code and the Government Code.
The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office is committed to carrying out our responsibilities to the community ethically and with accountability. We are constantly striving for progress and continue to review our policies and procedures as we work toward our mission to protect an serve our community and earn the public’s trust through compassion and accountability.
- We have updated our Public Administrator policy and procedures manual, with employees closely adhering to this policy.
- As part of our new policy, the Coroner-Sergeant does a weekly review of all open Public Administrator cases to ensure accuracy.
- This policy also requires receipts have complete details including information identifying all parties and the estate associated, a Public Administrator case number and a complete description of the property.
- All deputy coroners and Public Administrator staff are members of the California State Association of Public Administrators, Public Guardians, and Public Conservators, and are staying up to date on the education/training requirements set forth by the law.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE PUBLIC ADMINISTRATOR DIVISION
What is The Public Administrator?
The Public Administrator serves in a fiduciary capacity to provide professional estate management services to county residents who die without someone willing or able to handle their affairs. The powers of the Public Administrator are mandated by the Probate Code of the State of California.
When is an estate handled by the Public Administrator?
The Public Administrator may be appointed under the following circumstances:
- When no executor or administrator has been appointed and the property is at risk of waste, loss or misappropriation.
- When appointed by the Court.
- When an heir nominates the Public Administrator or the Will names the Public Administrator as Executor.
- When there are no known heirs of the estate.
- For an heir who resides outside of the State of California and requests the Public Administrator.
- When the named Executor fails to act on a Formal Probate and no other person has a preferred right.
- In situations where the person with priority to act is not a resident of the United States.
Category of Estates handled by the Public Administrator
1. Indigent Estates
- These are estates without sufficient funds for disposition of the decedent remains and no heirs to take care of disposition arrangements. In situations where the assets of an estate are not sufficient to pay for disposition, the law requires disposition by the relatives of the decedent. If there are no relatives or other persons to act, the County assumes that responsibility.
2. Summary Estates
- Estates not exceeding $50,000.00 in value. The Public Administrator may act without court authorization to marshal and distribute the assets of these estates pursuant to the Probate Code.
- Estates valued at $50,000.01 to $150,000.00. The Public Administrator may act after an ex parte application seeking authority to summarily dispose of a small estate is approved by the court.
3. Probated Estates
What is the overall objective of the administration of an estate?
- These are estates over $150,000.00 in value. An estate of this size is handled by the Public Administrator under the jurisdiction of the Superior Court. The proceeding commences from the first filing of a petition and appointment of the Public Administrator. Other procedures subject to court approval include proving a will, sale of property, paying taxes and distribution of assets. An accounting is completed and submitted to the court to show what was done before the Public Administrator is discharged.
The overall objective of the administration of an estate is to:
- Collect a decedent’s assets (including partially owned assets)
- Determine and pay the debts, expenses, and taxes
- Distribute the balance of the assets to the persons (sometimes trusts) entitled to them.
- SHERIFF’S OFFICE: Sheriff’s Office Launches Investigation of Sheriff’s Office’s Practice of Selling Dead People’s Stuff to Sheriff’s Office Employees
- ‘No Reason to Think This Hasn’t Gone On For Years’: Sheriff Honsal Speaks on Corruption Inquiry
- At Least Four Sheriff’s Office Employees Bought Dead People’s Belongings Through Public Administrator; They’ve Now Been Asked to Return Them
- DA Maggie Fleming Calls In FBI, State Attorney General for Sheriff’s Office Corruption Investigation
- Eureka Mayor Frank Jager Was Employed by Coroner’s Office and Acting as Executor of Estates During Period Under Investigation for Corruption
- California Department of Justice Agrees to Take Over Investigation of Humboldt County Public Administrator’s Office
- Outpost Investigation Finds Illegal Sales Through Public Administrator’s Office Date Back to at Least 2013
- Were You Affected by Corruption in County Coroner/Public Administrator Office? If So, the State Attorney General’s Office Wants to Hear From You.
- As State Continues to Investigate Humboldt’s Public Administrator Bureau, Sheriff Honsal Outlines New Anti-Corruption Policies
- The State Corruption Investigation Into Humboldt’s Public Administrator Bureau Seems to Have Fallen Into a Black Hole
Note: This post was updated Nov. 30 at 4:54 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.