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County Controller Lewis Perseveres Through Adversity

August 12, 1996|MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — He has been publicly chastised by county supervisors, stripped of some of his key duties and accused of misconduct by the grand jury for his role in Orange County's bankruptcy.

Through it all, Auditor-Controller Steve E. Lewis has continued to hold on to his job and collect his $104,500 annual salary.

He is one of the county's lowest-profile elected officeholders, and one of the most controversial. Looking at his role in government, it is difficult to say whether county officials hate him or like him. Is he a culprit in the county's financial collapse, or an unwitting scapegoat?

On one hand, the Board of Supervisors took away Lewis' auditing staff and responsibilities and gave those duties to a newly hired internal auditor who is paid more than Lewis.

On the other, they appointed him to two important oversight committees watching over the treasury and county audit operations.

And while supervisors had once tried to pressure Lewis into resigning, more recently they have doled out $300,000 of taxpayer money to help him pay legal fees to defend himself against formal misconduct charges. The board is scheduled to consider on Tuesday whether to give him another $200,000 for his legal defense.

"It's schizophrenic," community activist Bruce Whitaker said of the county's treatment of Lewis. "I don't think he was the ultimate villain of the bankruptcy, but he sure didn't sound the alarms that he should have. He should have done the honorable thing and resigned."

But unlike the early days of the bankruptcy, when county officials almost gleefully took turns attacking Lewis, today there is very little criticism of the auditor at the Hall of Administration.

County Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier, who once worked under Lewis and is said to be one of his supporters, declined to talk about him.

So, too, did Board of Supervisors Chairman Roger R. Stanton, who once belittled Lewis mercilessly during a board meeting, blaming the auditor for not preventing the bankruptcy.

Supervisors Jim Silva, Don Saltarelli and William G. Steiner said they believe Lewis is doing a fine job.

About the only county official willing to say anything bad about Lewis these days is Supervisor Marian Bergeson, who said she has no faith in him and wishes he would resign.

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As for Lewis, he remains somewhat of an enigma, a shadowy presence behind the scenes of county government who is seldom seen at board meetings or other functions representing his department. Frequently, Lewis' top assistants appear before the supervisors when his department has business to conduct at their meetings.

Lewis declined to be interviewed for this article. He has repeatedly declined such requests for more than a year.

Lewis' colleagues and friends say his avoidance of the public eye does not mean he hasn't been doing his job. They contend that the auditing function that makes up half of his official title was in fact a small part of his job. Most of his time is spent paying the county's bills and balancing the books, they say.

"He is a very hard worker," said Clerk-Recorder Gary L. Granville, who works in the same building as Lewis. "I have a very high regard for him. He's taken some strong stands with the board and shown a lot of courage. He's an honest man."

Robert Griffith, head of the county's General Services Agency who frequently plays golf with Lewis on weekends, said Lewis continues to take his job very seriously and is a dedicated public servant.

"He's tried not to let all the other stuff surrounding him get him down," Griffith said. "He's a very even-keeled guy."

Some community activists, however, feel Lewis let county residents down.

"Everybody had so much affection and respect for him before the bankruptcy, but if there was one person who should have done something to prevent it, it was Steve Lewis," said William Mitchell, a spokesman for the Orange County Chapter of Common Cause, a government watchdog group.

"He had little bread crumbs of information that something was wrong in the treasurer's office, yet he didn't follow through," Mitchell added. "He's shown a complete lack of willingness to accept any responsibility."

There's no disputing that the past 20 months have been tumultuous for Lewis. While fighting to survive professionally, he has also been supporting his wife in her personal struggle to overcome a serious kidney ailment.

His wife recently underwent a second kidney transplant after her body rejected the first one, which was donated by the couple's daughter. Friends close to Lewis said his wife's condition is still very serious.

"He's been through a lot these past two years," Griffith said.

When the bankruptcy hit, Lewis initially was hailed as a hero for warning of problems in the treasurer's office in two internal audits years before. But critics lashed out at Lewis for burying those warnings in audits he kept from public scrutiny, and for approving improper transfers within the county's investment pool.

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