When a pair of graduate students from little-known Brandman University dug out the salaries of top administrators at all 34 cities in Orange County and made them public, they were showered with praise.
Cindy Smith and Janet Voshall testified before the state Legislature, were honored by the county board of supervisors and rode limousines to TV news shows.
"I gave them an award because what they did was ethical, valid and honest," Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson said. "Anybody that would question whether that was a righteous thing to do, that would immediately put up a red flag that I should be worried about them."
The students' work took on greater significance two months later when the Bell scandal erupted, revealing the high salaries of city officials there. The state followed by finding out the salaries of all top municipal officials in California and posting them on the Internet.
But then the gold turned to lead.
Smith and Voshall said the fallout from their work so rankled public officials that they had to move out of the county to find work, and their academic advisor, a 30-year political science professor, resigned his post in protest.
Fred Smoller, who founded the master's program in public administration at Brandman, accused college leaders of buckling to pressure from conservative local politicians and trampling academic freedom.
"The resignation was the only way I could draw attention to the backdoor politicking that threatened the independence and academic integrity of the MPA program," Smoller said.
Now, as a new semester begins, Smoller is back at Brandman's sister school, Chapman University, and says the public administration program he hoped would add an edge to public accountability in Orange County has been neutered.
"The good old boys club is well and lives on," said Smith, a 47-year-old mother of five. "I didn't really think that was the case, but it still is."
Smith and Voshall were enlisted as interns to compile the salaries in 2010 when Laguna Hills City Council candidate Barbara Kogerman was trying to figure out how much her city manager was making and how that stacked up against others in the county.
When Kogerman, a longtime Republican, released the report in May 2010, it backed up her suspicions: Bruce Channing of Laguna Hills was the highest-paid city manager in the county. The city, with a population of about 34,000, was giving him compensation of more than $460,000, according to the report. A story about the survey landed in the Orange County Register.
Channing insisted that Kogerman's crew had exaggerated, and figures later posted on the state controller's website placed his compensation at $380,054. Still, a grand jury report later agreed that Channing was the highest-paid city manager in the county and said his compensation "exceeds levels in other comparably sized cities both inside and outside of Orange County."
The day Kogerman's report was released, Smoller said, an angry Channing demanded to meet with the students and wanted their email addresses and phone numbers.
Smoller refused, but he agreed with Channing on one thing: The title page had credited the report to the graduate students and carried the Brandman seal, seemingly giving it the university's imprimatur. Smoller called Kogerman and insisted she remove the university's name, which she did.
Not long after the report was released, Laguna Hills Councilman Allan Songstad and Tustin Councilman Jerry Amante, officers in the Orange County Division of the League of California Cities, proposed that the group respond to the report, but the league took no action.
The Orange County chapter later broke away from the parent group, saying the league was too liberal, and formed the Assn. of California Cities-Orange County.
Along with the chief executive of the breakaway group, Amante and Songstad met with James Doti, the president of Chapman University. Smoller said they refused to meet with him.
Songstad said he and Amante made it clear to Doti that Kogerman's report would make it difficult for Brandman public administration students to get hired in the county.
"It just seemed self evident," Songstad said.
Amante did not return several phone calls and emails requesting comment.
Doti said he "applauded the research" but told Smoller after the meeting that by putting Brandman's name on the report, Kogerman was using the university. He told Smoller to issue a statement further distancing the school from the report, which Smoller did.
Songstad, in an interview with The Times, insisted that salaries of city officials were not a matter of public record when Smith and Voshall requested them, although state law has been unequivocal on the subject since a California Supreme Court decision in 2007.
The controversy seemed to be over, but more than a year later, it roared back.
In fall 2011, Brandman's chancellor, Gary Brahm, met with the Assn. of California Cities-Orange County over a proposal that the university sponsor a training program for newly elected council members. The group decided not to go through with it.
That October, Smoller said, Brahm told him that his days as the public face of the program were over and that a nonacademic was being brought in as the liaison with local governments.
Smoller resigned as head of the public administration program the next day but continued working as a professor. The day he resigned, a photo of Smith and Voshall was taken off the Brandman website — a coincidence, university officials said.
The following July, the grand jury issued its 13-page report, concluding that Amante and Songstad "misled" the panel, misused their positions, engaged in misfeasance and should undergo ethics training.
The two councilmen, it said, "may have brought negative influences to bear on the continuing career of an education professional," meaning Smoller.
The Tustin and Laguna Hills city councils voted to ignore the grand jury's recommendations, including the suggestion of ethics training. Songstad called the panel's report "stupid" and "misguided."
Smoller hired a lawyer who asked a judge to release the grand jury transcripts, but the request was denied. Stan Ness, a retired lawyer who headed the grand jury subcommittee that investigated, would say little about the findings. "The report you're asking me about is particularly sensitive," he said.
Brahm, the chancellor, said that Smoller is an emotional man who became worked up over nothing and that no one pressured him to rein in the professor or push him out.
Smoller doesn't see it that way.
"Do you think any of this would have happened if [the students] had collected data on government costs associated with undocumented workers or public employee pensions?" he said.
Meanwhile, Kogerman was elected to the Laguna Hills council and has become mayor. Songstad and Amante no longer sit on their city councils: They were termed out.
Unable to find jobs in Orange County, Smith and Voshall moved. Smith is selling insurance in Phoenix. Voshall works in Los Angeles for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Smoller is at Chapman, hoping to start a public administration program there.