Update on Orange County public guardian investigation

Attorney to review public guardian
Kimberly Edds
October 13, 2010
The Orange County Register

An attorney with expertise in probate and estate law has been chosen to review the county’s public administrator/public guardian in the wake of criticism of how his office manages more than $38 million in estates and the lives or deaths of more than 1,000 people every year.

Tim Kay, a partner in the law firm of Snell & Wilmer, is an expert in probate and estate law, said county spokeswoman Brooke DeBaca. He was selected Oct. 8 by Stephen Dunivent, the deputy county executive officer overseeing the review.

The county’s review will target cases involving estates and conservatorships to make sure they are being handled within the law, said Dunivent.

Also being investigated are the property auction houses hired by the office and the process used to select those firms.

The review is expected to be done by early November, Dunivent said.

Kay’s contract will not be up for consideration by the county’s Board of Supervisors until Oct. 19, but to make sure he will be able to comply with the county’s aggressive time line Kay has already begun his analysis, DeBaca said.

From the website of Kay’s law firm:

Tim Kay is a Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust and Probate Law, California Board of Legal Specialization. His practice is concentrated in tax, trust, and estate matters with emphasis in estate planning, trust and probate administration, and estate and gift taxation. He employs advanced estate planning techniques, including grantor retained annuity trusts, family partnerships, limited liability companies, charitable remainder trusts, defective grantor trusts, insurance planning, public charities, and private foundations. Tim has experience in trust and estate litigation, and obtains private letter rulings on significant gift, estate, and income tax matters. In addition, he provides advice to non-profit organizations.


  • Stanford Law School (J.D., with distinction, 1987)
    • Note Editor, Stanford Law Review
  • University of San Francisco (B.A., Psychology, 1975

Criticized in two Orange County grand jury reports in 2009, the Public Administrator/Public Guardian’s Office was back in the public spotlight in August when then-assistant district attorney Todd Spitzer, thought by many to be in line to become the next district attorney, was fired after he began looking into allegations a conservatorship case was being mishandled by the agency.

Supervisor Pat Bates, who last year allowed Williams a little breathing room to correct the critiques of his office, has now asked for a county review of how the once little-known county agency liquidates the assets of large estates.

Public Administrator/Public Guardian John S. Williams, who blames the complaints on disgruntled employees who were either fired or not promoted, then upped the ante, asking for a complete review of his office’s policies and procedures.

He says he is confident in his staff and comfortable with how his office of 59 people is run.

Williams has hired his own personal attorney, well-known political lawyer Phil Greer, to represent him in his individual capacity.

The county employees’ union, which has been critical of Williams for years, urged the county’s CEO to select an attorney or retired judge with probate or conservatorship experience.

“Since John Williams assumed control of the office it has been plagued by a string of improprieties, lax controls, an inexplicable proliferation of managers, and dangerously low employee morale,” wrote Orange County Employees Association General Manager Nick Berardino in a letter sent to Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Janet Nguyen last week.

“As OCEA has said repeatedly over the past few years, and as the Grand Jury has concluded on two separate occasions, we believe the cause of these problems is the Public Administrator/Public Guardian himself,” he wrote.

Berardino also urged the county to direct its investigator to work with the state Attorney General’s Office, not the District Attorney’s Office, because of what he says is a conflict.

That alleged conflict is this: District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is engaged to Assistant Public Administrator/Public Guardian Peggi Buff.