LOCAL ELECTIONS ORANGE COUNTY RECORDER : Bitterness Apparent Between 2 Men

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The animosity between the two candidates for the post of the county's consummate civil servant--the dutiful recorder of deeds and vital records--is obvious to even the most casual observer.

Mention his opponent's name to incumbent County Recorder Lee A. Branch, 53, silver-haired, bespectacled and usually mild-mannered, and his lip curls seemingly uncontrollably. Mention the incumbent to challenger Stanley A. Roach, a nattily dressed Canadian emigrant, and his rapid-fire speech becomes even faster as he starts to shout.

Since at least July, 1988, the two men have been bitter foes. That is when Branch fired Roach from his job as a computer analyst for the county recorder's office. Branch, while declining to discuss personnel matters, has maintained that Roach's dismissal was related to his performance on the job.

Roach, a self-described whistle-blower, claims it was because he had uncovered extensive errors in the office's recording of deeds as well as a serious lack of security around other vital records, including marriage, birth and death certificates. Such errors and omissions will cost at least $6 million to correct and leaves the county vulnerable to lawsuits from those who may rely on inaccurate records, Roach has charged.

Since his campaign to unseat Branch in the June 5 election began, Roach has added allegations of a cover-up to the list of charges against his former boss.

Last June, the Board of Supervisors voted to commission an independent audit of the recorder's office after a review by the county administrative office concluded that, although Roach's criticisms were exaggerated, there were errors in the recorder's office that might expose the county to lawsuits.

The audit, expected to be sent to the board earlier this year, has yet to be completed. Roach charges that it is being withheld until after the election because it would prove embarrassing to Branch. Roach claims that former co-workers have told him the audit found more than 80 problem areas in Branch's operation.

"He's sitting on it," Roach said. "He's doing everything he can to keep it from coming out before June."

Branch acknowledges that the independent review noted about 80 ways to improve the record-keeping in his office, but denies the report reflects poorly on his stewardship. Moreover, Branch contends that he joined the county administrative office in recommending the review and paid for it out of his budget.

"There's nothing in that (report) that I have a problem with," Branch said. "Why would I hire somebody to make recommendations and then not implement them?"

Branch dismisses Roach as a serious challenger and says his opponent has raised only $3,000 for his campaign.

Indeed, Branch has weathered other storms. In the mid-1980s, before the board created a separate office to handle court records, the Orange County Superior Court threatened him with contempt 13 times for failing to forward criminal records on time.

At about the same time, in March 1985, a county audit recommended 157 changes that Branch should make in the way he operated his office and criticized him for resisting change and maintaining an adversary relationship with his staff. His staff was criticized in the report for being rude to the public.

Nevertheless the following year Branch was returned to office by an overwhelming 67% of the vote. And Branch, who has worked in the recorder's office since 1956, shortly after he graduated from high school, is confident voters will return him again.

As for Roach's charges, Branch said simply: "If it turns him on, I think that's fine. . . . I have other things to do with my life than be bothered by that."

ORANGE COUNTY RECORDER

Lee A. Branch

Home: Tustin

Age: 53

Occupation: County recorder

Background: Has worked in the Orange County recorder's office since 1956. Was appointed county recorder in 1978 and has won reelection handily three times since, despite a sometimes rocky relationship with the county and court officials he serves.

Issues: Wants to make county records more accessible. As a first step, birth records will be available in the fall on "user friendly" computer terminals at all 28 county libraries.

Stanley L. Roach

Home: Huntington Beach

Age: 51

Occupation: Data processing consultant

Background: Native of Canada who has said he became a U.S. citizen in 1988 so he could run against his former boss and bitter foe, Branch. Roach, self-described whistle-blower, was fired from his job in the county recorder's office 1988.

Issues: Wants to clean up what he calls "sloppy" record-keeping in the county recorder's office, which he alleges places vital county documents at risk.

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