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ORANGE COUNTY IN BANKRUPTCY : O.C. Doomsayer Transformed Into a Visionary

December 25, 1994|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — He doesn't seem like a prophet of doom, especially not when he's wearing his Mickey Mouse "Leader of the Club" tie--as he was on his birthday last week--and driving his gull-winged Bricklin to a triumphal speech at the local Rotary Club.

In fact, John M. W. Moorlach seems almost giddy as he steps to the podium to remind his appreciative audience that he warned them during the spring that Orange County's treasurer was taking enormous risks with the public's money.

"I couldn't believe how right I was," Moorlach says, hunching toward the microphone and reflecting on an interview he gave just before the county declared bankruptcy Dec. 6.

What's more, he said, after rereading an eight-page, doomsday letter he sent to County Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas F. Riley on May 31, he realized that his dire prediction about the county's future "wasn't just kind of close. It looked like I wrote it yesterday!"

Nearly three weeks after Orange County's extraordinary plunge into bankruptcy, Moorlach's personal and political stock is soaring on the strength of how right he was. He is pondering his suddenly bright future as a candidate for office and fielding nearly nonstop phone calls from reporters, friends and admirers across the country.

Should Moorlach run for the state Senate seat being vacated next month by Marian Bergeson? Or should he hope that the Board of Supervisors will decide next spring to replace disgraced former Treasurer Robert L. Citron with Moorlach, who predicted Orange County's financial collapse?

Although Thomas L. Daxon, a former Oklahoma finance director, was appointed last week to an interim, four-month term as treasurer, Moorlach, 39, makes no secret that he still wants the job--but with conditions.

"I want to be part of the rehabilitation plan, but I want to play a key role," he said. "If it's just a little role, I've got a better life. I don't need that."

*

Heady times, indeed, for a certified public accountant and Republican Party activist who was so little known in February that almost no one showed up when he announced his challenge to longtime incumbent Citron--and who lost the June election to Citron by a 61%-39% margin.

During the campaign, Moorlach was first dismissed by Citron and his allies, then accused of sparking baseless fears among the county's investors. Prominent Republicans such as Bergeson withdrew their support. Finally, Moorlach was ridiculed by Citron as Chicken Little, witlessly foretelling disaster.

To be proved right so quickly after such a resounding defeat feels pretty good now, even as Moorlach expresses sadness about the impact of the financial debacle on the citizens of Orange County.

"There is a God," he told his fellow Rotarians during his nearly hourlong speech last week. "To be vindicated within six months is pretty amazing to me. But this is not the way I wanted it."

Local Republican politicos are almost gushing about the opportunity that awaits him.

"I think (Moorlach) is the most sparkling star in the Orange County Republican galaxy at the moment," said Tom Fuentes, the local Republican chairman.

Even those who have occasionally opposed Moorlach before concede that the biggest municipal bankruptcy in history has jump-started his political career.

"Being right on something like this has a tendency to put you in a good political position," said Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Mary Hornbuckle, who supported Moorlach's campaign but has often quarreled with him on issues affecting the city where they both live.

Bergeson and Jim Silva, the two supervisors-elect who will take their seats next month, have joined Supervisor William G. Steiner in saying they would support Moorlach's appointment to the treasurer's job. Riley, who is retiring from the board next week, declined to comment on the issue Saturday, noting that he was unlikely to be in office when the decision is made. Other supervisors could not be reached for comment.

The financial crisis has so burnished Moorlach's reputation that many who once opposed him decline to criticize him, at least publicly.

Frequent Moorlach critic Peer Swan, the Irvine Ranch Water District chairman credited with forcing revelations about the fund's $2-billion loss, declined to be quoted. In May, Swan castigated Moorlach's campaign tactics, comparing his behavior to "a guy who runs into a theater and yells 'Fire!' "

Hornbuckle also begged off, pleading the Christmas spirit. Moorlach, she said, is "thoughtful, he studies the issues, and he's an honest man. I won't say that he's humble, but I won't get more critical at the moment, not over the Christmas holidays."

Another critic said Moorlach's problem in the election was not his message, but his method. If Moorlach had taken his careful research of Citron's portfolio, marshaled his political support and quietly approached each supervisor with his concerns, they might have listened, he said.

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