When former Orange County Auditor Controller Eric Woolery died mysteriously in Kansas City back in the summer of 2019, it capped a wild run as a longtime Republican conservative accountant who transformed his office into a roving taxpayer watchdog.
His tenure was highlighted by actually auditing expenses, detailing county spending for taxpayers and – most radically – rejecting expense requests from county supervisors when their math didn’t add up.
While Orange County’s GOP establishment didn’t back Woolery in his transparency battles, Woolery’s legacy remains strong with those looking to fill his shoes in office.
Two local Republicans – Andrew Hamilton and John Moorlach – have pulled papers for the office.
And both say they want to bring Woolery’s fiscal hawk approach back.
Yet Moorlach, one of the OC GOP’s loudest voices on fiscal accountability, may not make it to the ballot.
In his statement of qualifications, where it calls for an active CPA license, Moorlach has added the notation, “on or before 12/31/22.”
That’s a cute way of saying his license isn’t current.
And from my decades of experience covering elections, that means he’s out.
Just this morning, reporters have just been alerted that there’s already a complaint filed with the state Board of Accountancy – which regulates CPAs – alleging that Moorlach failed to put “inactive” after his CPA title.
Moorlach tells me he’s been meeting with lawyers on the CPA license issue this week and observers will just have to wait until the close of business today to see whether he’s going to try to qualify.
“I turned the door handle,” Moorlach told me, adding, “whether I’ll go through it, you’ll know Saturday.”
Often referred to as the man who predicted the 1994 bankruptcy, Moorlach became a well-known OC Republican voice on fiscal matters and public pensions after being appointed and elected in his own right as Treasurer/Tax Collector, a post he held until his election as a county supervisor in 2006.
Given that, Moorlach catapulted himself into the public limelight on fiscal issues, he was largely independent as a county politician, not dependent on the GOP party leadership – something party leaders didn’t appreciate much.
During his time as a county supervisor, local unions also opposed Moorlach’s views and policies, arguing that the fiscal hawk’s warnings were overblown when it came to pensions.
After two terms as a county supervisor, Moorlach successfully ran for a state senate seat, but was defeated in his 2020 reelection bid by current Democratic state Sen. Dave Min.
Later, when Republican county Supervisor Michelle Steel won a seat in Congress, party leaders ironically pushed Moorlach for a special election to fill Steel’s seat, arguing that his name recognition gave him an edge over other local elected officials, a move that didn’t work as others didn’t exit the race.
Moorlach and a crowded GOP field later lost that contested county supervisor election for his old 2nd district seat in 2021 to Democrat Katrina Foley.
At that point, it looked like Moorlach would finally return to the private sector job he’d always lamented to reporters’ leaving for public office.
Until this week.
Moorlach said he had plenty of people encouraging him to run.
His last campaign featured troubling allegations that he and his chief of staff failed to support a female staffer who reported abuse from former State Assemblyman Bill Brough.
Moorlach knows those issues remain.
Yet for now, he faces a simpler hurdle.
“For me now, the issue is do I meet the minimum qualifications,” Moorlach said in an interview this week.
He says he meets those approved in November 1997, but not the current qualifications.
“I’m a CPA … my status is inactive,” said Moorlach, confirming that he once sponsored legislation as a state senator attempting to remedy this very situation.
The continuing education requirement to maintain his license, Moorlach said, “is something I could cure between now and the date I would be sworn in.”
The requirement is about two weeks of courses.
“I could do it in the next six months,” he said.
“We’re looking to see if it’s worth moving forward depending on whether a judge would agree,” he said.
Given his stature, Moorlach notes “I’ll be sued within two seconds of filing.”
“That’s what will make this week so interesting.”
While Moorlach by his own admission didn’t have the greatest relationship with Woolery and endorsed his opponent, Frank Davies, he said he’s committed to fulfilling the auditor’s role of a fiscal watchdog that Woolery established.
Orange County Supervisors – mostly Republicans during Woolery’s tenure – hated having an independent elected auditor who could question their expenses, even delay spending requests, and, much worse, help reporters run the numbers on government programs and spending.
Woolery even partnered with Voice of OC to put on a series of panels, called Accounting for Activists, helping residents dive into local government budgets and expenditures.
He held up questionable mailing expenses by incumbent supervisors in election years and even stood up to the questionable handling of then-County Supervisor Shawn Nelson’s pension.
“I was elected by the voters of Orange County to be their fiscal watchdog,” Woolery wrote in a 2015 Voice of OC opinion piece asserting the auditor-controller’s right to investigate Nelson’s pension payment.
By the summer of 2018, supervisors had enough of Woolery’s activism and downsized his office – taking control of many of Woolery’s auditing powers, including transferring the county’s internal auditors who are watchdogs against fraud and waste back under the CEO’s office.
County supervisors also publicly threatened to take over 287 accounting and financial control staff positions from Woolery’s office, and slashed $1 million from his budget.
After that, Woolery seemed crushed when he didn’t see a stampede of fellow Republican Party officials defending his office.
He later quietly moved his family to Kansas shortly afterward, flying back and forth to his office in Santa Ana and hoping to quietly finish out his term.
Woolery dropped dead a short time later, I think of a broken heart. From what I’ve gathered, he died sitting in his home office chair while talking on the phone with a fellow Republican activist back in Orange County.
Hamilton, who was recalled from the Lake Forest City Council in 2018, describes himself as a longtime accountant who decided to run for auditor controller after hearing that Eric Woolery had died.
“That’s when the position popped up for me,” Hamilton said. “It was extremely unfortunate, his passing. My heart goes out to his family.”
Hamilton said he always knew the position was there, but Woolery’s activism woke him up to what the Auditor/Controller can really do.
Despite admiring Woolery, Hamllton says, “I’m my own candidate. I’m my own person. I’m not going to copy another person.”
But Woolery’s approach is something Hamilton says fits, both the office and him.
“Protection of taxpayers is absolutely critical,” he said.
Hamilton sees himself as a taxpayer advocate.
And while he is a registered Republican, Hamilton said he’s approaching the job in a nonpartisan light.
“My goal in this nonpartisan office is to be a taxpayer advocate and foster transparency,” Hamilton said, adding, “I’d reach out to everyone, be fair with everyone.”
His motto: Never overcharge. And never collect more than you need.
Hamilton, 51, believes he has the qualities needed for a public auditor saying he’s been doing accounting and controller duties since 1995.
He relocated to Orange County from Ohio 27 years ago and has worked at Big 6 CPA firms and public agencies, such as the Mesa Water District as their CFO.
He’s currently the Finance Director for the City of Yucaipa.
Hamilton, who is married and has two daughters, says his recall from office in Lake Forest had more to do with city council majority dynamics and development than anything he did in office, but nonetheless acknowledges he was recalled by a wide margin.
After living in Tustin and Lake Forest, Hamilton said he served on planning commissions and eventually served a term on the Lake Forest city council before his recall.
He said he’s proud of efforts he led in this city to pay off the city’s unfunded pension liabilities early, as well as presiding over a balanced budget that didn’t increase debt.
Hamilton said he expects to be a strict auditor/controller.
“Controllers are personally liable if they let something slip through,” he said. “My whole career has been about continuing improvement, making processes better, implementing internal controls.”
Hamilton is also a big advocate of unclaimed property.
He wants to connect taxpayers to property they have left behind, often time refunds, that the state is holding onto, now estimated at $12 billion, Hamilton says.
Hamilton believes OC residents could be owed as much as $1 billion.
He wants to publicize the owed property and taxes and get residents access to their money.
He got the city of Lake Forest to list local unclaimed property.
He wants to do the same for the county.
Like Woolery, Hamilton wants to undo state tax districts – known as Mello Roos – where possible.
He noted Lake Forest officials were one of the few that had been able to refund those kinds of special taxes for their residents.
Hamilton notes because of those efforts, “Lake Forest is completely Mello Roos free.”
“When those obligations expire, we should not be collecting any more money from those residents,” he said, adding the motto:
“Never overcharge. And never collect more than you need.”
Moorlach said he’s eying the county auditor position because he still has public service in his blood.
“Certainly, I have a concern for Orange County. It’s like going full circle, going back to my accounting roots.”
While Moorlach gathered significant media attention as Treasurer/Tax Collector for his public warnings about rising public pension liabilities, he said he was more of an activist as a county supervisor.
As an Auditor/Controller, Moorlach said he would not expect to make headlines.
As long as everyone’s math adds up.
If everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing, what’s there to be an activist about?
If they’re not?
“Then we have the stature to at least make the phone calls. And see if we have to rectify,” he said.
Yet it’s not clear that Moorlach would have taken Woolery’s path blocking Nelson’s pension question.
And Moorlach said should he be able to run, he’s not coming in with any preconceived notions or initiatives.
“I have no presumptions of something that’s not being done properly at this time,” he said.
Neither Hamilton or Moorlach said they have any plans to try to get back the auditing powers taken away by county supervisors.
Moorlach said he admired how Woolery sought to inform the public through citizens’ reports on finances and said the next auditor controller should offer financial data in a regional context where Orange County taxpayers could compare how efficient their public services and resources are compared to other counties.
“I think if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” Moorlach said, adding that he would support full disclosure of federal COVID relief spending.
“CPAs are always operating from a skeptical standpoint,” he said. “That’s a healthy approach, confirming that everything is what it’s supposed to be.”
Correction: An earlier version of this column indicated that county supervisors had taken back 287 auditor-controller positions. While supervisors threatened to take the action and gave direction to study, county staff say a transition of those positions never occured.
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