SANTA ANA — Robert L. Citron may be an admitted felon, responsible for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, but longtime friends of the reclusive former bureaucrat say that is not reason enough to abandon him now.
Citron and his wife, Terri, remained in seclusion Friday, but the couple's neighbors and friends rebounded from the shock of Citron's surprising guilty pleas the day before to voice support for the former longtime Orange County treasurer-tax collector.
"You just don't turn your back on friends when they run into trouble," said Lynn Lende, who lives down the street from Citron and has known him for 20 years. Last December, just days after Orange County filed bankruptcy and Citron resigned, Lende hosted a Christmas party attended by 54 of Citron's friends who wanted to show their support.
"We feel for him," Lende said. "We're not able to really say what he did was right, wrong or indifferent. He is still a friend, and we want him to know that."
On Thursday, Citron, 70, pleaded guilty to six felony counts of misappropriating public funds, falsifying documents and misleading nearly 200 government agencies that trusted him to invest their money. He faces a possible 14-year prison sentence.
Lende and others who live in this north Santa Ana neighborhood of older, spacious homes said they are relieved that their street's most famous resident has begun to close what is the darkest chapter in his life.
"Bob perceives his guilty plea as closure," said next-door neighbor Dan Miller. "Most of his neighbors believe he's been through enough. The feeling is that you guys (media) should leave him alone now and leave us alone. You can talk about what he did wrong, but you also have to look at his two decades of service to the public. Don't overlook that."
The biggest fear of Citron's friends is that he will be remembered only as the Orange County treasurer whose lies and ineptitude in handling complicated financial matters triggered an economic debacle that changed thousands of lives. The years when Citron's investment schemes generated millions in revenue for the county and other local governmental agencies are being overlooked by an unforgiving public in the rush to punish him, friends and supporters said.
"I hope people look at Bob's career with a sense of balance," said attorney and neighbor Greg Sanders. "For two decades, Bob did yeoman's work for the taxpayers of Orange County. I think he should be judged in the context of his entire public career."
It was Sanders who linked Citron with defense attorney David W. Wiechert, the former federal prosecutor who negotiated the plea agreement on Citron's behalf.
Citron's friends said that he has gradually come to accept his monumental role in the county's financial crisis. County Clerk-Recorder Gary A. Granville said he saw his former colleague two weeks ago at a breakfast meeting of the Christian Businessmen's Committee.
"Bob's a realist, and what is, is. He did what he did, and he knows that well enough," Granville said. "I think Bob deeply regrets all that has happened, though I think he's been in a kind of state of denial until the last few weeks. You can't change the facts, and I think he's really concerned that people not think he profited any way from it."
Miller said that Citron had become more upbeat in the past weeks, almost as if a tremendous weight had been removed from his shoulders.
"He's been lifted by something," Miller said. "He began coming out more in the neighborhood, talking to neighbors. I get the impression that he's decided to move on with his life. No, he's not denying his role in what happened, but he knows there's nothing he can do now to better things. Let me tell you, in the past few days his whole being has been much better then when all this unfolded."
Despite his guilty pleas, many of Citron's friends believe that county officials are making him the scapegoat for the financial crisis.
"I'm not just saying it because he's a friend. But how can you blame all of what happened on just one or two people?" said Lende, who contends the county made a mistake by making Citron resign.
"He could've stayed on and helped them sort out this mess and we wouldn't have to be paying millions to an army of lawyers."
Still, Lende, who owned an insurance business before he retired, said that he cannot excuse Citron's investment strategy, which relied heavily on leveraged accounts.
"We used to talk about how to make money, and I never believed in leveraging money. I grew up during the Depression and believe you pay your own way."
Citron's decision to plead guilty is a sign of his character, which will not allow him to skirt responsibility, said Newport Beach-Costa Mesa Daily Pilot columnist Jerry Kobrin, another longtime friend.
"It was a personal tragedy. But I hold him in very high regard despite his guilty plea. Bob is a good person," Kobrin said.
Times staff writer Jodi Wilgoren contributed to this report.