ORANGE COUNTY IN BANKRUPTCY : 2 Careers Caught in County Crisis : Steve E. Lewis: A long-serving, low-profile elected bureaucrat with few enemies, the auditor-controller was thrust onto center stage by the bankruptcy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Orange County's chief executive succeeds in his quest to oust Steve E. Lewis from his elected post as county auditor-controller, Lewis would leave the only employer he has known since graduating from college.

Hired as a bottom-rung accountant after his graduation from San Diego State University in 1965, Lewis rose to the top job in the auditor-controller's office in 1984 and has run unopposed in three elections since. Now 52, he earns $104,582 a year, running a department with 450 employees and a budget of nearly $22 million.

As an elected official, Lewis cannot be fired from his job.

County Chief Executive Officer William J. Popejoy said he has asked Lewis to resign but that Lewis has so far refused to step down before his term expires in 1998. If Lewis insists on staying, Popejoy said he will pressure the auditor-controller to leave by slashing his budget and refusing to use the services of his office.

"I have no confidence that Mr. Lewis can do the auditing job the county needs," Popejoy said Monday. "I have great difficulty moving forward and reorganizing county government with Mr. Lewis as auditor."

Lewis and two attorneys representing him in the ongoing financial crisis did not return repeated calls for comment.

Long seen as a low-profile bureaucrat with few enemies, Lewis has been thrust center stage since Orange County became the largest municipality in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy protection Dec. 6.

At first, Lewis won praise for having criticized the county treasurer's office in routine audits. But more recently, he has been blasted by county supervisors and outside observers for approving improper transfers within the county's now-failed investment portfolio, releasing his critical audits too late and not sounding a loud enough alarm.

In response to one supervisor's inquiry about why an audit of the treasurer's office was distributed 19 months after the period it concerned, Lewis noted that a staff member involved with the audit had been on maternity leave.

A citizens' group is considering a recall movement against Lewis, who was also scolded by state senators in Sacramento when he testified twice over the past two months about his role in the fiscal failure.

Last month, under fire for approving improper transfers, Lewis wrote a 5 1/2-page letter to "the Citizens of Orange County, My Employees, Friends and Family."

"I believe the auditor-controller's office did its job and did more than others with oversight responsibility," he wrote.

Born in Corona, Lewis is a lifelong Californian. A father of two grown children, he has been married to Muriel for 30 years and lived in the same Santa Ana house since 1969.

Before the bankruptcy, Lewis enjoyed a sterling reputation throughout the county government for his honesty and integrity and was lauded by employees for his casual management style. He was also admired for his willingness to challenge others, routinely rejecting expense forms for expenditures not explicitly covered under the county's reimbursement policy.

Times staff writer Mark Platte contributed to this story.

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