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Orange County Picks Moorlach as Treasurer

March 18, 1995|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — After a year that took him from dissident doomsayer to glorified prophet, accountant John M. W. Moorlach was named Orange County treasurer-tax collector Friday by an enthusiastic vote of a chastened Board of Supervisors.

"It would have been easy for you to have just walked away from it all, but you didn't," said board Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez, joining his colleagues in lavishing praise on the 39-year-old CPA. "Instead, you stand here today ready to accept a challenge."

Moorlach, who lost a bitterly fought campaign to unseat longtime Treasurer Robert L. Citron in June's election, will serve one year before voters elect a treasurer next March.

It was during the 1994 campaign that Moorlach made his first public pronouncements about the risky nature of Citron's investment strategies, warning that his calculations showed the county-run investment pool had already suffered more than $1.2 billion in losses.

On Friday, he ebulliently vowed to get to work restoring confidence in the beleaguered treasurer's office. Moorlach promised to release a 100-day action plan as early as next week and to follow up with a clear investment policy and monthly written updates on the status of the investment pool.

"Now it's time to rock 'n' roll. Now it's time to work. Let's get this thing moving," he said. "I guess you can win by losing. It has been a long, strange journey."

As Moorlach was winning an appointment he openly had sought for months, Wall Street delivered another blow to the embattled county: the Standard & Poor's bond rating agency said it would consider a proposed rollover of $1.275 billion in county bonds coming due this summer as a default.

County Chief Executive Officer William J. Popejoy announced a proposal Thursday to stretch out the bonds' due date for another year at their current interest rate in order to avoid default.

But S & P said Friday that even if individual bondholders accept the plan, it would hurt the county's credit rating over the long haul.

At the same time, the rating agency lauded Popejoy's recommendation this week that the Board of Supervisors place a half-cent increase in the sales tax on a special election ballot in June.

"In S & P's opinion this is a positive step toward developing a plausible workout plan given the county's significant budgetary and debt service payment gaps," the agency said, echoing general sentiment on Wall Street.

After a week of grim news about the state of the county budget, the supervisors held their first cheerful meeting in months to name Moorlach to the post from which Citron resigned in disgrace Dec. 4, two days before the county's unprecedented bankruptcy filing.

The 5-0 appointment came amid widespread criticism of the board's selection process.

The Orange County Business Council, the Orange County Grand Jury, the president of the California Assn. of County Treasurer-Tax Collectors, Popejoy, interim county Treasurer Thomas E. Daxon, Wall Street bankers and other observers of the county's financial crisis had all urged the board to postpone filling the position until they could conduct a national search for the most qualified candidate.

Instead, the board asked a special oversight committee to conduct a confirmation hearing; that panel approved Moorlach's appointment 4 to 1 Thursday night.

And the Republican supervisors showed no hesitation Friday in appointing the unsuccessful Republican candidate to fill the position that Citron, a Democrat, held for 24 years.

"You have certainly earned the respect of all of us who have known you through this ordeal," said Supervisor Marian Bergeson, who rushed to second his nomination even before Supervisor Jim Silva had a chance to make the motion.

In May, Bergeson had withdrawn her endorsement of Moorlach's candidacy, saying his criticisms of Citron's investment strategy could damage the county's credit rating.

Moorlach, who had joked about being late for the oversight committee hearing the night before, arrived nearly half an hour early for his moment in the sun Friday.

From the moment he emerged from his gull-winged Bricklin car outside the Hall of Administration, Moorlach was greeted by supporters who showered him with congratulations even before the vote. A Republican activist, Moorlach earned 40% of the vote when he launched the first electoral challenge Citron had faced in more than two decades. When many of his predictions about problems in the investment pool came true last fall, Moorlach was catapulted into an instant celebrity.

Cars sported "Don't blame me, I voted for Moorlach" bumper stickers, and the accountant became the hottest speaker on the circuit for local conservative clubs.

"I'm not going to say I'm the perfect candidate for the job--I'm not that arrogant," Moorlach told the board Friday. "We need to restore confidence in this office, not only on Wall Street but here, locally, on Main Street."

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