Declaring an exception to their own policy, county supervisors voted Tuesday to pay $300,000 to defend their former budget director against charges he helped skim $60 million from cities and schools that kept money in the county's infamous investment pool.
The action, which capped an emotional debate over the county's responsibility to workers accused of wrongdoing, will significantly add to the $1 million Orange County has already spent defending officials on matters relating to the investment pool collapse and subsequent county bankruptcy.
In agreeing to pay for the defense of Ronald S. Rubino, who was credited with devising ways to keep the county afloat in the early 1990s when Sacramento raided county funds to balance the state budget, supervisors pointed out that the accusations against him stem from his official duties, and that the failure to back him would send a chilling message to other employees.
"We must consider how our decision today will affect the county work force," Supervisor Jim Silva said. "County employees cannot be afraid to make decisions."
Rubino, 44, who worked at the county for 20 years before quitting about two years ago, was indicted on two felony charges of aiding and abetting the misappropriation of public funds. If convicted, he faces a maximum punishment of nine years in prison.
In a personal appeal before Tuesday's vote, Rubino maintained his innocence and said his family simply cannot afford to pay for his legal defense without county help.
"I'm here today to again let you know personally and directly from me that I did nothing wrong," said Rubino, who was flanked by more than a dozen friends and family members seated in the audience. "It's extremely unfair that I must risk financial ruin and jeopardize my family's dreams to fight these false accusations."
Just before its vote on Rubino, the board reaffirmed a January 1995 resolution stating that "no representation shall be provided for the defense of any criminal action that may be filed against any current or former county employee."
The board cited the policy last year when it stopped paying the legal fees of former Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron and his onetime top deputy, Matthew Raabe.
Citron, whose risky investment strategies led to the county's December 1994 bankruptcy filing, pleaded guilty in April to six felony counts of securities fraud and misappropriating public funds. Raabe still faces trial on the same six felony counts.
But the policy does allow the board to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis. In order to make an exception, the board must find that the actions in question were performed as part of a county job and that no malice or bad faith was involved.
None of those charged with misappropriating public money is accused of doing it for personal gain. The interest skimming was done for the benefit of the county at the expense of cities and schools.
Supervisors voted 4-to-1 Tuesday to make the findings permitting an exception in Rubino's case. Supervisor Don Saltarelli said he didn't have enough information to approve the finding.
The board then voted unanimously to pay at least $300,000 for his legal fees, prompting loud cheers from his family and friends in the audience.
But supervisors stipulated that the fees paid to Rubino's attorneys could not exceed those earned by local prosecutors and public defenders.
Some supervisors questioned whether it was fair to place the $300,000 cap on Rubino's legal expenses. "If the board agrees to pay his fees, he should have a reasonable chance," said Saltarelli. "I don't know if you will find a criminal lawyer to handle criminal defense for $70 an hour."
But Rubino agreed to the cap as long as he could seek additional funds from the board if needed.
In an interview after the vote, Rubino said his attorneys have "substantially discounted their rates" and charge from $100 to $225 an hour depending on the experience level of the attorney involved. Normally, he said the rate would be from $300 to $400 an hour.
Rubino said the $300,000 "gives me a chance" to defend himself. "I'm very appreciative to the Board of Supervisors," he added.
The board also voted Tuesday to pay about $12,000 in legal bills for two county employees who hired private attorneys when they were interviewed by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Orange County Grand Jury.
The employees, Joy Cubbin of the treasurer's office and Veronica Deves-Aguilera of the Health Care Agency, have not been charged with any crimes.
"What I think we see is people victimized by a situation they had no control over," said Supervisor Marian Bergeson.
The board also asked county officials to investigate whether former Finance Director Eileen T. Walsh should have her legal bills paid by the county as well.
Taxpayers have picked up $1,045,642 in attorney fees for various county officials since December 1994--nearly all related to a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of the bankruptcy.
The county spent $660,333 on defense costs for supervisors, $44,008 for former County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider and $165,289 on legal bills for Auditor-Controller Steve E. Lewis, according to a county report released last week.
Under the January 1995 resolution, the Board of Supervisors agreed to pay the legal costs of employees involved in the SEC probe as well as class-action litigation stemming from the bankruptcy.
In December, the board voted to pay the legal expenses of Supervisors William G. Steiner and Roger R. Stanton, as well as those of Auditor-Controller Lewis. The three officials face civil charges of "willful misconduct" for failing to properly oversee the actions of Citron.
Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to this report.