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Rubino Mistrial Leaves Unanswered Questions

Which Officials Knew What Still a Bankruptcy Issue

September 15, 1996

The saga of Orange County's long-running bankruptcy reached a new level of emotional intensity at the end of last week. But at the heart of the passion and uncertainty leading up to the declaration of a mistrial in the case of former Budget Director Ronald S. Rubino are fresh lessons about a recurring theme of the bankruptcy. What is clear, once again, is the need for understandable guidelines, strict accountability and lines of authority within the entire extended group of officials charged with fiscal management in county government.

The Rubino case turns on whether there really was a lone cowboy, the disgraced former Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron, trying to cover his bets and his backside. Did he go it basically alone, or was there a wider circle of conspirators, or people very close to the situation who really dropped the ball?

We certainly don't need more litigation to tell us that there were people in high places in county government who were doing a poor job of paying attention. But we still don't have entirely clear answers to the first part of the question: Who was in on Citron's activity of taking the public's money and using it to buy time? The confusion of the jurors tells us that even when a jury looks carefully at what evidence is available, it is still difficult to sort out convincingly who was doing exactly what.

Whatever uncertainty there may have been before about the extent of official knowledge, about who failed to act, and about who should have been more questioning, remains. Citron skirted his day of full accounting in court, and with it whatever opportunity there might have been for further public enlightenment, when he pleaded guilty to six felony counts of misappropriation and fraud. The public now awaits the trial early next year of former Assistant Treasurer Matthew Raabe on the same charges as Citron, and along with the trial, whatever more may be learned.

Rubino always has cut a fascinating figure in this larger story. For months, friends and supporters had proclaimed his innocence of the charges that he aided in the diversion of interest earnings belonging to cities, school districts and other government agencies. Citron himself had suggested that Rubino was out of the loop by testifying, oddly enough, as a prosecution witness, that he never told him about the diversion.

But the jury, when it came to considering the evidence, was confused and even upset. So went the first criminal trial to grow out of the unprecedented collapse of the county's investment pool and the declaration of bankruptcy in December of 1994.

During deliberations, notes were passed to the judge indicating tensions and squabbling. And the questions went to the heart of the issue: For example, was it enough to convict if Rubino simply knew about the transfer of funds to cover those huge losses accrued during Citron's wrong-way bets on interest rates?

Earlier in the week, Judge J. Stephen Czuleger had instructed jurors to put aside their differences, and told them that mere knowledge of the transfer, without anything more, was not a criminal act. On Friday, he declared a mistrial, with the jury deadlocked 9 to 3 in favor of acquittal.

Getting at the truth of who knew what has been a question running through the post-mortems on the bankruptcy all along. This question is central to all the key players: Raabe, Auditor-Controller Steven E. Lewis, and the supervisors who were charged with civil misconduct by a grand jury, Roger R. Stanton and William G. Steiner, accused of having "willfully failed" to oversee Citron's actions.

Whatever answers the Rubino trial has provided, it has left many to be addressed another day.

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