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ORANGE COUNTY IN BANKRUPTCY : Ruling Keeps Lid on D.A.'s Investigation : Courts: Judge says disclosing contents of warrants used to search O.C. offices in fiscal crisis could damage reputations of innocent parties.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Orange County Superior Court judge on Monday agreed to keep secret what investigators for the district attorney’s office were searching for in their Dec. 19 and 22 raids on the county treasurer’s and auditor-controller’s offices.

Judge Theodore E. Millard said disclosure of search warrant contents “at this early stage” could damage the reputations and privacy of “parties who may never be charged with a crime.” Public disclosure could also “interfere with the ongoing investigation,” Millard said in his decision.

Millard was responding to a Jan. 3 request by The Times, subsequently joined by the Orange County Register, to unseal search warrant affidavits in the district attorney’s criminal investigation of former Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron and others.

In seeking to have the court papers made public, attorneys for The Times cited the overriding public interest in the district attorney’s investigation of the risky investment practices that last month plunged the county into an unprecedented bankruptcy.

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The attorneys also argued that a state law says that once a search warrant has been executed, the documents and records relating to the warrant “shall be open to the public as a judicial record” within 10 days.

“The public’s very business is being investigated,” The Times’ attorneys wrote in their application to unseal the warrants. “Billions of the public’s dollars have been lost, but the public is not to be given access to one shred of information regarding search warrants for the public documents that may well explain how Orange County came to be bankrupt and who is responsible.”

On Dec. 19, investigators from the district attorney’s office sealed off Citron’s office, carting away a vanload of documents and computers. Investigators also searched the office of the county auditor-controller, which performed internal audits on Citron’s operations. The searches appeared to focus on documents that could shed light on Citron’s investments and precisely what cities, schools and special districts with savings in the fund were told about the risks of those investments.

Millard had sealed the search warrants, and affidavits outlining why they were needed, at the request of the district attorney on Dec. 23.

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In arguing to keep the documents under seal, the district attorney’s office pointed to a different state law that allows it to refuse to disclose official information if the “necessity for preserving the confidentiality of the information . . . outweighs the necessity for disclosure in the interest of justice.”

Another law also allows records to be sealed to protect the identity of a confidential informant, Deputy Dist. Atty. Cheryl L. Mercer said. In arguments to the judge, prosecutors said the name of at least one informant is listed in the search warrant. But Millard did not cite that in his findings.

Millard held a closed session Friday to consider the district attorney’s arguments against unsealing the search warrant affidavits. In his order keeping the documents secret, Millard found that the district attorney’s need to preserve the confidentiality of the investigation outweighed the public’s right to know.

Times attorneys said Monday that they are considering whether to appeal the decision or ask Millard for reconsideration.

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