Lawsuit alleges Orange County’s fiscal watchdog had his staff drive his kids to school during work hours

A recently fired Orange County employee has filed a lawsuit against the county, claiming she lost her job as retaliation for complaining about wasteful misuse of resources in the office of the county’s elected fiscal watchdog.

Among the allegations in the Jan. 29 lawsuit filed by lawyers for Tonette Smart is that Auditor-Controller Eric Woolery routinely asked county staff members who worked for him to drive his children to and from school during work hours.

Smart, the former director of the auditor-controller’s internal audit division, was fired from her position two weeks ago after an internal county investigation alleged she had conducted personal tasks at work, according to court records. Woolery’s office said Smart sent and received tens of thousands of personal emails on her county-maintained email account.

Both Woolery and Smart deny the allegations against them.

In her lawsuit, Smart characterizes herself as a whistleblower who was fired as retribution for challenging Woolery’s actions.

Woolery denied Smart’s allegations, calling her lawsuit a media stunt intended to bilk taxpayers and saying that the litigation “could be vindictive.” He said his office fired Smart based on the recommendations of the county’s human relations department, following that department’s independent investigation into Smart.

Smart acknowledges that she was terminated over allegations that she had received “thousands of personal emails over the course of four and a half years, which included such things as food coupons and advertisements.” But her lawyer said the investigation into her emails was a “witch hunt” that served as pretext to initiate her firing.

The lawsuit states that on or about Aug. 21, Smart raised concerns with the county that, “Woolery regularly brought his children into the office and used county employee time to supervise his children. He also regularly instructed…. staff members to pick his children up at school and take them to dance lessons or other extracurricular activities while on the county’s time.”

The day after she made that complaint, Smart, who had worked for the county for 15 years, said a human resources manager called her and advised her not to contact the county’s central human resources office about the issue. By October, Smart had been suspended. She remained on leave until she was fired, according to the lawsuit.

Danielle Katz, a spokeswoman for the auditor-controller’s office who the lawsuit said chauffeured Woolery’s children during the workday, denied the allegations.

“The only time I’ve picked up Woolery’s kids is for sleepovers and play dates outside of work hours, because his daughter and my daughter are friends,” Katz said.

In the lawsuit, Smart also alleged that Woolery leaked a confidential audit to an online publication and then retaliated against her for voicing concerns about the possible negative impacts of that leak.

Woolery also denied those allegations.

Smart’s lawsuit doesn’t seek a specified dollar amount, but a claim filed as a precursor to the litigation states she wants $1.75 million plus attorney’s fees.

County attorneys denied a public records request from the Orange County Register seeking Smart’s emails, saying the records “are primarily personal and contain no more than incidental mentions of agency business.”

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