An appeals court ruling that halted court proceedings against two Orange County supervisors facing bankruptcy-related misconduct charges has raised the possibility that one defendant, Roger R. Stanton, might not be prosecuted at all.
“Every day that goes by that we don’t resolve these pretrial [issues] contributes to the possibility that the case won’t be heard,” said Wallace J. Wade, one of the top county prosecutors who is handling the case. “It’s a day-by-day thing.”
But Wade and Stanton’s attorney, Wylie Aitken, both insisted that they want to move forward with a trial and let a jury decide the merits of the charges.
“I am not going let the D.A. make these charges and not be held accountable,” Aitken said. “We want to get this done . . . have him acquitted and let him walk out with his head high.”
Along with Supervisor William G. Steiner, Stanton was charged with “willful misconduct” for allegedly failing to exercise proper control over the county treasurer, Robert L. Citron, whose wrong-way bets on interest rates lost $1.64 billion and pushed the county into bankruptcy. The two face removal from office if convicted.
But Stanton’s term expires at the end of December, and the district attorney’s office has said it will drop the case against Stanton once he leaves office.
Because the only punishment Stanton faces is removal from office, Wade said there would be no sense in prosecuting the case after his term expires. “You don’t remove someone from office who is already out of office,” he said. “The trial issue becomes moot.”
In a significant setback for the prosecution, the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled Tuesday that charges against Steiner and Stanton should be dismissed unless prosecutors can come up with compelling reasons to proceed with a trial.
Under the ruling, Superior Court Judge John W. Ouderkirk is ordered to dismiss the charges by July 8 or send the case back to the appeals court for oral arguments on Aug. 27.
Aitken as well as Steiner’s attorney, Allan Stokke, said the ruling gives them the strongest indications yet that either Ouderkirk or the appeals court will eventually dismiss all of the charges against their clients.
But Aitken said that if a trial is ordered he will push to have it completed before Stanton’s term expires, even though the timing will be tight.
After the Aug. 27 hearing, the appeals court will have up to 90 days to render a decision. Though attorneys doubted the court will take the maximum time, they said the earliest a trial could begin is late October or early November. The trial itself would take anywhere from a few weeks to two months, they said.
“We want the case resolved on its merits in favor of Roger,” Aitken said. Allowing the case to disappear because Stanton’s term expired “would be letting [the district attorney’s office] off the hook for an incredible waste of taxpayer money,” he added.
Steiner and Stanton are the only two sitting supervisors who were on the board when the county filed for bankruptcy on Dec. 6, 1994. Steiner’s term ends in 1998.
The appeals court ruling does not affect a third official facing misconduct charges, Auditor-Controller Steve E. Lewis.
The Board of Supervisors has allocated $250,000 in defense funds for each of the supervisors. While they are approaching that cap, their attorneys said they didn’t expect to run up significant new charges until at least the Aug. 27 hearing.