Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach, right, and county Treasurer/Tax Collector Chriss Street, pictured when the two were on friendlier terms. (Photo credit: unknown)

Friday, June 4, 2010 | This year’s race for the office of Orange County treasurer/tax collector features a showdown four years in the making.

Yet neither of the main players is on the June 8 primary ballot.

The race for the county’s top financial post was thrown wide open in March when incumbent Treasurer/Tax Collector Chriss Street announced that he would not seek re-election after a judge ruled against him in a long-running civil fraud case that centered on his stewardship of a now-defunct trucking trust.

This gave Supervisor John Moorlach, himself a former county treasurer, an opportunity to right what he now considers wrong-headed support four years ago of Street, his former friend and subordinate. Moorlach said his protégé lied to him about the fraud case that, at least temporarily, has doomed Street’s political career in Orange County.

That’s why Moorlach jumped at the chance to fix his mistake when Street announced he wasn’t running for re-election, handpicking Huntington Beach City Treasurer Shari Freidenrich to run for the post. Meanwhile, Street’s deputy, Keith Rodenhuis, stepped up as Freidenrich’s top rival.

Hoping to run right up the middle is South County CPA David Lang, who has served as a community college trustee for the last decade.

The race continues to be tight.

A poll conducted this week by Voice of OC/Probolsky Research showed that Freidenrich and Rodenhuis are in a virtual tie, with Lang in third. Freidenrich is at 16 percent, Rodenhuis at 15 percent and Lang is at about 7 percent.

Yet the vast majority — 56 percent — of the electorate is still undecided. A Voice of OC/Probolsky Research poll in April showed virtually the same dynamic except Rodenhuis held a slight lead then.

Moorlach and Street have been central players in post-bankruptcy Orange County, and their relationship is a complicated one.

In 1994, the year of the bankruptcy, Moorlach and Street were private citizens — Moorlach a CPA and Street a Wall Street speculator. Street was one of the first to spot problems with risky investments by then-Treasurer/Tax Collector Bob Citron. Moorlach took the concerns public and challenged the county’s leadership.

When the county went bankrupt, Moorlach was appointed treasurer/tax collector. He would stay in the position until 2006, when he successfully sought a county supervisor’s seat on a platform of controlling pension costs.

Moorlach quickly appointed Street as his assistant to ensure a smooth transition.

It was anything but.

Within weeks of being appointed, the lawsuit surfaced. It alleged a disturbing pattern of double dealing by Street as the trustee of a bankrupt trucking company. Once the allegations went public, Orange County’s public employee unions cried foul and called on Street to resign. But Moorlach stood by Street, and they stood together against the unions. Both were elected by broad margins.

But soon after, Moorlach and Street became enemies with Moorlach concerned that his support of Street was a blemish. Street accused Moorlach of being purely political and ideological in opposing him. As the lawsuit against Street gained steam, Moorlach called on his heir to resign. Street dismissed the allegations as politically motivated.

The two have been sparring ever since.

“For me, I’m trying to right a wrong,” Moorlach said. “Shari should have run four years ago,” Moorlach said, adding that her run was put on hold in 2006 after Street came up with $100,000 to fund his own campaign.

“Shari is the ideal candidate. You cannot get a better qualified person to run for that seat, bar none,” Moorlach said. “She has the experience: an elected treasurer, she’s run a (investment) portfolio, collected taxes. She’s your dream candidate.”

Moorlach’s support has been key for Freidenrich gaining traction with the county’s Republican elite and picking up key endorsements. So much so that it triggered jokes among political insiders about how Freidenrich’s interviews could become a drinking game because she mentioned Moorlach’s name so often.

Rodenhuis has seized on this.

“Our next treasurer/tax collector needs to be independent,” Rodenhuis said. “And electing somebody so closely tied to an Orange County supervisor should bring concern to the taxpayers.”

However, while emphasizing the tight connection between Moorlach and Freidenrich, Rodenhuis works hard to de-emphasize his connection with Street.

He regularly touts his four years of experience working in Street’s office as a key factor in his favor. But when asked about Street, he calls him a “friend” not a “mentor.”

And as the primary race has entered its home stretch, both candidates have become increasingly uncomfortable with being seen as surrogates for other politicians’ battles.

But maintaining a distance has been difficult. When Freidenrich sued Rodenhuis over his ballot title (deputy treasurer), Moorlach was more of a presence in the courtroom than her. And Moorlach hasn’t been silent about his concerns regarding Rodenhuis.

“(Street’s) protégé, so to speak, has a phony title, a phony history. If he were an investor-type guy, he’d be on (County Finance Director) Bob Franz’s payroll,” Moorlach said. “There’s something to ethics because I don’t think he qualifies.”

“It’s a matter of getting someone with the training, education and experience as opposed to someone in the right place at the right time,” Moorlach said.

A superior court judge disagreed and Rodenhuis got to keep his ballot title.

Those kinds of attacks from Moorlach also drew a strong response from Street, who while trying not to be a lightning rod for Rodenhuis, can’t hide his distaste for Moorlach.

“Clearly, everything we did was so dramatically different than what Moorlach did,” Street said, saying his administration drastically reduced the cost of office administration by hiking certain statutorily allowable document and late fees. That’s something Moorlach avoided. “Frankly, he didn’t like the changes,” Street said.

And Moorlach’s courtroom involvement in Freidenrich’s lawsuit, Street said, confirms his worst concerns.

“What I saw there was John Moorlach in charge,” he said.

Meanwhile, the candidate Lang might end up benefiting the most from this good relationship gone bad. He is the best-financed candidate in the race, having lent himself $100,000 to fund a series of slate mailers, and calls his candidacy is a direct reaction to the battle of the protégés.

“That office does need to be independent,” Lang said.

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