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Allegations Fly in Normally Sleepy Santa Barbara County Auditor-Controller Campaign

County employees Jennifer Christensen and Betsy Schaffer trade barbs and loan themselves campaign funds in their attempts at the seat

Jennifer Christensen and Betsy Schaffer Click to view larger
Jennifer Christensen, left, and Betsy Schaffer are running for the Santa Barbara County Auditor-Controller position in the June 5 election. Both candidates have accused the other of not being right for the job. (Contributed photos)

In a year when two lieutenants are challenging an incumbent sheriff, it's the two county employes battling for the Santa Barbara County auditor-controller seat who are waging the most competitive campaigns.  

County Investment Officer Jennifer Christensen and Assistant Auditor-Controller Betsy Schaffer are facing off for the position, which is open after former Auditor-Controller Bob Geis retired and his appointed replacement, Theo Fallati, decided not to run for the office.  

It's not often that two accountants become the names on the marquee in a June primary, and both women have loaned themselves a considerable amount of money for the campaigns.

As of early May campaign finance numbers, Christensen had raised $26,000, including a $20,000 loan to herself, and Schaffer had raised about $15,000, including a $10,000 loan to herself. 

Both candidates have accused the other of not being right for the job; Christensen has conflict of interest allegations toward Schaffer, and Schaffer's campaign claims that Christensen is not qualified to hold the post since she is not a certified public accountant.

Christensen has spoken out publicly about Schaffer’s involvement with Simpler Systems, a software company that received more than $1 million in county contracts between 2005 and 2016.

Schaffer was married to Rick Schaffer, the owner of Simpler Systems, for part of that period: they were married in 2000, separated in 2006, became legally separated in 2010, and officially divorced in 2013, she said.

Schaffer agreed to give up her portion of ownership in Simpler Systems when the couple divorced, she said, adding that the married couple owned 27 percent of the company.

During that same time period, Schaffer said, she worked in various jobs for the county, including as deputy chief controller from 2005 to 2007, and division chief in the Auditor-Controller's Office from 2011 to 2016.

Fallati appointed her to her current position of Assistant Auditor-Controller in May 2016.

From 2007 to 2011, Schaffer worked as a project manager for Simpler Systems. She said even though her marriage with Rick Schaffer was rocky, they stayed together. She went to work for her husband’s company so they could spend more time together, she told Noozhawk. 

“We were trying to make the marriage work,” Schaffer said. “We did not have a contentious relationship. We had different life goals, marriage goals, relationship goals.”

She also worked as the company’s corporate bookkeeper from 1998 to 2016.

“It is important for all public officials to avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” Christensen said in a statement.

“The law says so. It is even more important for public officials charged with the protection of our money to avoid conflicts of interests. Schaffer’s ownership interest in Simpler Systems (which she herself touts in her ballot statement) and ongoing business relationship with Simpler Systems even after her appointment to assistant auditor-controller is a gross violation of the law prohibiting self-dealing (Government Code Section 1090) and a complete and total violation of the public’s trust,” Christensen said.

Schaffer said she was only an owner in Simpler Systems through marriage — half of her husband’s shares were legally hers. She also said she was not involved in any decisions related to county contracts.

“I was not a corporate shareholder,” Schaffer told Noozhawk. “I did not negotiate any of those contracts.”

When the two divorced in 2013, Schaffer said, she gave up her ownership in Simpler Systems, and she took ownership of a Mesa house.

She also said that her supervisors at the county knew about her marriage. 

“They would not let me into a contract with Rick,” Schaffer said. “They walled me off.”

Christensen doesn’t buy it.

“Her description of the status of her relationship with Rick as 'on-again, off-again' is a red herring and has no bearing on the fact that she was an owner of Simpler Systems while simultaneously working as a full-time employee for the Auditor-Controller’s Office,” Christensen told Noozhawk.

In response to Christensen airing these conflict of interest allegations, many in Schaffer’s campaign have pushed an accusation that Christensen is not qualified to serve as auditor-controller because she is not a certified public accountant.

“She’s not qualified,” Schaffer said. “I am the most qualified.”

Christensen is not a CPA, but she does meet the minimum qualifications to run for the county Auditor-Controller position.

Geis, who has endorsed Schaffer, challenged Christensen’s qualifications in a formal letter dated March 19, 2018.

County Clerk-Recorder-Assessor Joe Holland issued a letter in response, on March 21, that Christensen was indeed qualified, citing her education and work experience.

“I am an accountant, a lawyer and a finance professional with 16 and a half years of experience in municipal law and municipal finance with Santa Barbara County,” Christensen said.

She has a juris doctorate with an emphasis in business law, and a master's degree in business administration, with an emphasis in finance, both from the University of Southern California.

Schaffer, who is a certified public accountant, said she is running for the seat because she wants to maintain continuity in the office.

“I want to continue the excellent work for our office,” she said. “I am running because I care.”

The election is June 5.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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