It's been a year since the city of Orange dropped this bombshell on its residents:
The operator of the city's waste recycling plant may have "misappropriated" perhaps millions of dollars for personal use that belonged to the city, and Orange police and the district attorney's office were investigating.
No one knew that simple announcement would plunge the city into a roiling scandal.
So far, it has cost the police chief his job, dragged the city manager into a district attorney's investigation and triggered a recall campaign against the mayor. It has also left residents wondering how their city had landed in yet another municipal mess.
A year later, the controversy continues and several critical questions remain unanswered. Among them:
* Why haven't city officials given residents a detailed explanation of what happened?
* Why can't the city say how much money was allegedly diverted? Estimates have ranged from $6 million to $10 million.
* Why did the city continue the exclusive, no-bid contract with the family that has collected the city's garbage for 40 years to run the recycling center?
The official silence bothers community activists, such as Carole Walters.
"City Hall won't tell us what happened," Walters said. "Instead, they fired the police chief for trying to find out."
For their part, city officials cite the ongoing criminal investigation, saying they can't tell the public what they know, at least not yet.
"We're in a difficult position because the city and the City Council doesn't know what it's going to do until the D.A.'s investigation is done," said City Atty. David A. De Berry. "We definitely have to find out how much was taken, how much is owed [the city]. We're hoping the D.A. will help us iron that out."
The scandal has divided this central county city of historic homes and large shade trees, and darkened the mood of many residents whose rising anger often flashes at City Council meetings.
Supporters of former Police Chief John R. Robertson shoot hostile questions at the mayor and two council members who voted in February to terminate him. City officials say Robertson showed poor judgment in investigating the leak of a sealed search warrant affidavit that laid out the criminal case in vivid detail.
At a recent meeting, for example, resident Norm Phillips chided the council about the appearance of dumping the chief right in the midst of the trash scandal, prompting Councilman Mike Spurgeon to bristle at the suggestion of impropriety.
"I'll tell you what, Norm," Spurgeon barked, leaning over the council dais. "If you think you've got something on us, you take it to the D.A. You put up or shut up."
Mayor Joanne Coontz, too, who voted with Spurgeon and Mark Murphy to oust the chief, snapped at another resident, "Anything else you want to complain about?"
At the center of the criminal investigation is Jeffery Hambarian, the youngest son of Sam A. and Alyce Hambarian, who have been the city's only garbage haulers since the 1950s. Their son was president of the recycling operation when the funds were reported missing.
Jeffery Hambarian, who was briefly represented by former O.J. Simpson attorney Robert Shapiro, has consistently refused to comment on the case. His current attorney, Marshall M. Schulman, did not return a call for comment.
The criminal investigation is months from completion, according to sources familiar with it. So far, authorities have analyzed more than 1.5 million canceled checks and have begun poring over tens of thousands more, part of the laborious process of building what will likely be a money laundering and mail fraud case.
The conflict-of-interest probe into allegations against City Manager David L. Rudat, meanwhile, is apparently closer to completion, according to the sources, although Rudat said he has not been contacted by the district attorney's office about the status of the case.
Last fall, City Atty. De Berry concluded that Rudat had participated in decisions that had a financial impact on Hambarian and referred the matter to the district attorney.
Rudat's wife, Carol Rudat, a real estate broker with Seven Gables Realty, collected a $13,735 commission for selling Hambarian's $580,000 house in November 1995.
Under California law, it's illegal for public officials who directly or indirectly accept income from a contractor to then influence official decisions involving that contractor.
Rudat has repeatedly denied that his wife's business arrangement with Jeffery Hambarian in any way colored his judgment. "There's no damn conflict," he said.
But in his letter to the district attorney, De Berry wrote that "it appears that Mr. Rudat did make or participate in . . . decisions which had a reasonably foreseeable financial impact on Jeffery Hambarian" and had done so 13 times.
In January, district attorney's investigators began questioning city building inspectors and others involved in the controversial sale of Jeffery Hambarian's house on Crest de Ville Ave.