Santa Maria Sun | May 03, 2018
The Santa Barbara County auditor-controller office may be staffed with accountants, but something isn’t adding up.
Ballots for the June 5 Statewide Direct Primary Election will be mailed out on May 7, and while Californians will have an opportunity to cast votes in support of various measures and officials, the race between Santa Barbara County auditor-controller candidates Betsy Schaffer and Jennifer Christensen is becoming heated.
Schaffer, who has worked off and on in the auditor-controller office for nearly 15 years, moved to Santa Maria with her adoptive mother when she was 10 years old. She graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a Bachelor of Science in business administration in 1991, just before she became a certified public accountant in 1995.
Schaffer said she’s lived and worked in Santa Barbara County ever since.
“I feel like I have connections to all of Santa Barbara County,” she said in an interview with the Sun.
Santa Barbara County’s chief investment officer, Christensen, is a “fifth generation Californian,” who earned a Bachelor of Art from UCLA and a Juris Doctorate and Masters of Business Administration from USC, according to her campaign website.
Christensen began her work with the county as an attorney in the county counsel’s office 16 years ago. She currently manages $1.6 billion as chief investment officer and spent six years inside the auditor-controller office serving as the county’s financial reporting and accounting chief.
“So I’ve got a really comprehensive … idea of, or well-rounded experience with, the auditor’s office,” Christensen said. “Both as someone from outside the office as well as someone from inside the office.”
Schaffer became the assistant auditor-controller in 2016, when she was appointed to the position by Theo Fallati, the current auditor. Within her first year as assistant, Schaffer said she helped uncover an embezzlement scandal in which former county employee Lynn Hogan stole nearly $2 million in public funds over the course of 10 years.
Hogan was arrested in September 2017 and pleaded guilty to misappropriation of public funds, forgery, and conspiracy in Santa Barbara County Superior Court on April 18.
f elected, Schaffer said she hopes to continue improving the county’s fiscal integrity using her years of experience in public and private accounting.
“I feel that what we do is so important, because it’s a technical office,” Schaffer said. “It is elected, but it’s technical. We process payroll, we allocate property tax revenue, we prepare financial statements, we conduct audits. So we’re accountants.”
Schaffer’s opponent, however, said that a long-standing pattern of corruption in the auditor-controller office is to blame for the recent embezzlement incident.
Christensen alleged that nepotism, pension spiking, and self-dealing characterize the tenure of current auditor Fallati and former auditor Bob Geis. No formal allegations have been made against Fallati or Geis, and the Sun was unable to confirm Christensen’s claims before press time.
As an appointee of Fallati’s, Schaffer is part of the problem, Christensen said.
“She’s been there with them the whole time,” Christensen told the Sun. “I think they have gone—and by ‘they’ I mean Geis, Fallati, and Schaffer—have gone well past questionable ethics boundaries into violations of the law.”
Christensen said Schaffer’s past “ownership interest” in a software company that works with and is frequently paid by the auditor-controller office is a clear-cut case of “self-dealing.”
Simpler Systems, a software company founded decades ago by Schaffer’s ex-husband, has contracted with 12 county departments, including the auditor-controller office, since 1998, according to data compiled by the auditor-controller office. The county has paid Simpler Systems more than $3.5 million since then, and nearly $2 million of that total came from the auditor’s office alone.
Christensen said that a conflict of interest is undeniable, although according to court documents Schaffer and her ex-husband were divorced in August 2013 and had been legally separated since May 2010, long before Schaffer’s appointment to assistant auditor in 2016.
Schaffer said she did work as an accountant and project manager for Simpler Systems before her latest return to the auditor-controller office in 2011, when she worked in various lower-level county positions, until she was offered the assistant auditor position years later.
Simpler Systems Corporate Officer Barry Taugher confirmed that Schaffer was never a partner at the company, is not a shareholder, and only technically co-owned the company through state marriage laws.
Taugher called Christensen’s claims “ridiculous.”
“She’s making an issue out of something that isn’t an issue,” he said.
Schaffer said she stopped doing hourly bookkeeping for Simpler Systems once she was offered the assistant auditor-controller position.
“I have no financial interest in the company,” she said.
Schaffer said as a non-politician, the race against an attorney who has campaigned before hasn’t been easy.
“Again, I really do love the staff in our office and I love our county and I’m really—it makes me sad—” Schaffer said, pausing as her voice cracked. “It makes me sad that they are being put through this. It’s not them. They live in Santa Maria, they live in Lompoc, they live in the valley, and they’re being targeted also.
“I just want to focus on the good things our office does and will continue to do if I’m elected,” she said.
Schaffer’s former supervisor, former Santa Barbara County auditor-controller Bob Geis, recently filed a petition attacking Christensen’s qualifications, or lack thereof, and formally requested her name be removed from the ballot.
According to state law, becoming a certified public accountant is only one of four ways to qualify for the auditor-controller. Requirements also include an accounting degree from an accredited university, a certificate from the Institute of Internal Auditors, or serving as an assistant county auditor. Christensen meets one of the mandated requirements, and Schaffer meets three.
Geis’ petition was rejected by the Registrar of Voters Office in March.
“I’m feeling fabulous about that,” Christensen said.
If elected, Christensen said she’d ensure the county’s fiscal health using only the highest ethical standards. The county is hurting financially, she said, and it has been for a long time.
“We have got to turn this ship around,” Christensen said.