SANTA ANA — The Orange County Grand Jury has asked to review a private consultant's study of office operations directed by County Recorder Lee A. Branch, who is now the subject of sexual harassment and abuse allegations by employees within the office, officials said.
The grand jury request was made Tuesday, a day after county authorities said that they had extended Branch's leave from office until an investigation is completed, said Assistant Recorder Ella M. Murphy.
It was unclear whether the action signaled the grand jury's interest in launching an independent investigation of the recorder's office in the panel's role as watchdog of county government operations.
"I have no idea what they want it for," Murphy said of the study, which also outlines the office's intention to upgrade technology that would make document filing more efficient.
However, county officials, including Board of Supervisors Chairman Harriett M. Wieder and Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, have indicated in recent weeks that the Branch case could be referred to the grand jury pending the outcome of the harassment investigation. Branch was placed on paid leave Oct. 29, shortly after employee complaints surfaced about his personal relationship with documents manager Nancy L. Smith. Some employees have complained that Branch showed favoritism to Smith within the office and made lewd remarks to another office worker.
Both Branch and Smith have been accused of physically abusing employees on the recorder's office staff. Branch has acknowledged his relationship with Smith, who is on indefinite leave from her duties. However, both have flatly denied the accusations made by employees.
Murphy said the grand jury's request for the information came in a letter dated Nov. 30, and a draft of the consultant's report was provided to the panel. The intent of the study was to show potential vendors for new office technology how the office operated and what improvements may be needed for more efficient operation.
"It contains a complete flow of office operations and where we would like to be in the future," Murphy said.
In the past decade, Branch's office has been criticized for poor management, lax security and numerous errors in recorded documents. For example, in 1988, county supervisors denied Branch a pay raise following his refusal to move his operation after the county spent $260,000 to plan a new facility to house the recorder's office.
Neither Branch nor grand jury members could be reached for comment Friday.
In Branch's absence, county officials have appointed Robert A. Griffith, deputy director of the County Social Services Agency and former chief of employee relations for the county, to oversee operations in the recorder's office.
During his temporary assignment there, Griffith said he found a place where office-space constraints have forced employees to work in very close quarters, often limiting productivity in a department where the workload is extremely heavy.
As a result, employees have been required to work long hours and some weekends just to catch up. The department's staff of about 100 employees file and maintain records, largely dealing with real estate transactions. On most days, about 4,000 documents are brought to the recorder's office for filing.
"One of the most significant issues is physical space," Griffith said. "It's a real dingy place and that definitely has an impact on office morale. There is no question that there is a feeling among employees that the office has not been given the attention it deserves and their needs have not been addressed."
Griffith said he plans to meet with Branch when he is scheduled to return to duty in two weeks.
Branch is expected to be interviewed by affirmative action investigators some time next week, said Russ Patton, the county personnel director.