A Justifiable Expense : Orange County will pay for defense of three officials in bankruptcy case

Orange County taxpayers were stung by a loss of nearly $1.7 billion in the county investment pool and have shelled out millions of dollars to attorneys in the attempt to recover some of the money. Now the public will pay to defend three elected public officials whom many have denounced as having been inattentive as the county moved toward bankruptcy.

The payments for the defense, though distasteful, are justifiable. There is a larger principle involved-- protecting public servants from exposure to litigation and thereby encouraging good people to seek office.

Former Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron has pleaded guilty to six counts of securities fraud and misappropriating funds. But others in county government knew of Citron's investments, or should have. There was an appalling lack of oversight.

Of the five county supervisors who held office when bankruptcy was declared a year ago, only two remain, Roger R. Stanton and William G. Steiner. Both, along with the elected auditor-controller, Steve E. Lewis, were indicted this month by the grand jury on civil charges. Under the law, the only penalty is removal from office.

All three men have pleaded not guilty. They have a right to a trial. While it is easy to say that the three were negligent in monitoring Citron's actions, it will be more difficult to prove in court that they knowingly and intentionally engaged in willful misconduct, which is necessary for conviction.

Forcing elected officials to pay to defend themselves against lawsuits brought over the discharge of their official duties surely would scare qualified men and women away from public office. Stanton and Steiner were charged for what they did on the job. This is different from cases in which officials are accused of sexual harassment or other actions outside the scope of their employment.

A key concern in this matter is cost. Some attorneys are charging nearly $400 an hour to help the county recover from bankruptcy. In one instance, three lawyers from the same firm billed the county more than $1,100 for talking to each other, although they could not agree on how long they had talked.

The vote to pay for the defense was 3 to 0 (Stanton and Steiner of course abstained). The three expressed prudent concerns about attorneys' fees and are right to have demanded a plan to keep spending in line.

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