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O.C. official dismisses ouster threats

The treasurer says he plans to stay on the job amid several probes and mounting criticism of his spending $758,000 on office 'rehabilitations.'

August 28, 2007|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

Orange County Treasurer Chriss Street on Monday dismissed calls for his resignation amid mounting concerns over personal and public legal troubles, saying he intended to remain in office even if county supervisors followed through with a threat to strip him of his authority to oversee the county's $5.9-billion investment portfolio.

More bad news may come for Street today, when the largest union of Orange County's public employees is expected to announce it is launching a recall effort against him.

Questions about Street trailed him even before he was elected treasurer last year. But they have multiplied as more information has emerged about his handling of a county design contract earlier this year and a trucking firm's bankruptcy case prior to his election.

There has also been criticism over the amount of money -- $758,000 to date -- Street has spent remodeling his county offices. His onetime political mentor and ally, county Supervisor John Moorlach, publicly announced that he had asked for Street's resignation last week. It was Moorlach who hired Street, 57, into the treasurer's office last year, enabling Street to use his treasurer's office title on his ballot statement.

On Monday, Street led reporters on a tour of his office, pointing out "rehabilitations" that he said he had made to make the office more efficient and effective, and handed out thick binders of documents that he said proved he was innocent of wrongdoing. He dismissed questions about his qualification for office as "rumor and innuendo," saying they were the result of a failure to communicate effectively rather than malfeasance.

"I'm committed to the taxpayers that elected me, and I will be here to do my job," Street said when asked if he would resign. Asked whether he was willing to remain in the position even if his authority were reduced, he said: "I'm committed to doing my job as the elected treasurer-tax collector."

Asked during a news conference if he still considered Moorlach a friend, Street said he had "great respect" for Moorlach, who was on vacation. Moorlach's chief of staff, Mario Mainero, declined to comment.

Federal prosecutors have been looking into allegations for more than a year that Street, while serving as the trustee in a bankruptcy case involving Fruehauf Trailer Corp., diverted money for personal use, according to people with direct knowledge of the inquiry.

Street's lawyer, Phillip B. Greer, said Monday they were unaware of any investigation being conducted by the U.S. attorney's office and had not been contacted as part of it. Separately, the U.S. Department of Labor is investigating Street's role in the Fruehauf case.

More recently, the Orange County district attorney's office launched an investigation into allegations that Street intervened in the county's bid process to steer an $18,000 contract to an Irvine architectural firm. Street said Monday he merely signed documents provided to him by the county's Resource Development and Management Department and did nothing improper.

A few months after taking office, Street launched a major overhaul of the treasurer's offices -- including ripping out walls to create a more open floor plan. Street has defended the effort, saying the improved surroundings have made the office's roughly 100 employees more productive and efficient in handling calls from taxpayers and collecting past-due remittances.

He said he reduced the office's annual operating budget by $1.8 million and planned to reduce it by $1.6 million more.

The changes included high-end office chairs and other furniture. Further renovations enlarged Street's office and built a "trading floor," separated from his office by a sliding glass door, similar to the aesthetics of a sleek investment bank.

christian.berthelsen @latimes.com

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