Friday, February 4, 2010 | Orange County supervisors once again find themselves scrambling to remove a fellow countywide elected official put in place by their own Republican establishment but now widely criticized.
And depending on how this behind-the-scenes battle plays out, taxpayers could end up on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional salary costs.
Before, the official in question was former Orange County Treasurer Chriss Street. Now it’s John Williams, the county’s public administrator/guardian.
After successfully dodging questions about his job following two scathing grand jury reports in 2009, Williams is now back in play after an attorney hired by county supervisors to review the office gave them all private briefings in recent weeks concluding that Williams’ actions are leaving the county exposed to litigation risks.
The possibility of Williams’ ouster was first reported Thursday by the Orange County Register.
Several sources briefed on the attorney’s report — which looked at how well Williams handled liquidating large estates with probate issues — said it painted a picture of his office as “incompetent.”
Among the cases highlighted by the attorney, according to those briefed, is Williams’ steering of a land sale to a Newport Beach auction company, LFC, that has ties to former Orange County GOP Chairman Tom Fuentes.
There is also scrutiny into the estate of Charles Lewis, who was killed by a drunk driver in Newport Beach and left a large clothing fortune behind. Williams took over Lewis’ estate and liquidated assets but courts later said he overreached and turned matters back to Lewis’ wife.
The attorney’s report also seems to be back up concerns voiced by former deputy district attorney Todd Spitzer (also a former assemblyman and county supervisor) who was fired by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas after he responded to complaints about Williams and looked into his office.
Rackauckas — whose fiancé Peggi Buff is Williams most senior deputy and also facing potential removal — also has been asked to review Williams’ office by victims’ rights advocates. However no such investigation has ever been announced.
Both Williams and Buff could be stripped of their posts. Sources close to ongoing negotiations between Williams and supervisors now say the process will likely culminate next month with Williams’ office being dismantled.
But county attorneys are telling supervisors that while they can strip Williams of his duties, they can’t touch his paycheck, which is close to $150,000 annually. And Williams just got re-elected to a four-year term.
County supervisors now seem poised to adopt a plan next Tuesday, which is advocated by County CEO Tom Mauk, which would call for paying an executive manager a six-figure salary to essentially take over all of Williams’ job duties with the aim of protecting the county from more lawsuit risks.
It’s a situation county supervisors have been in before.
Street, who was found guilty last year of double dealing as a bankruptcy trustee (before becoming county treasurer), last year was stripped of his duties and County Finance Director Bob Franz had to monitor county investments. Those duties were just transferred back last month to new Treasurer/Tax Collector Shari Freidenrich.
Both Williams and Street are appointments that were sponsored by County Supervisor John Moorlach.
Moorlach pushed to get Street into office and then backed him when county labor leaders fought his appointment. Williams was another Moorlach ally who in 2006 got his support for combining the elective office of Public Guardian with the appointed job of Public Administrator.
By combining both jobs, Williams was able to cobble together a six-figure income.
And just like with Street, Williams and Moorlach now find themselves arguing against each other with Moorlach becoming one of Williams’ strongest critics.
And in a final twist of irony, supervisors now find themselves negotiating Williams’ potential exit or sanction with attorney Phil Greer — who has represented just about every single supervisor in one capacity or another in recent years.