CA public administrator review findings delayed

Review of public administrator delayed
Kimberly Edds
November 18, 2010
The Orange County Register

Findings of a much-anticipated review of the county’s public administrator/public guardian will be delayed at least until the beginning of next year as the county is set to hire its second law firm in less than two months to tackle the job.

The county plans to pay Colantuono & Levin, PC $40,000 to investigate allegations that Public Administrator/Public Guardian John S. Williams and his agency is unnecessarily taking control of people’s estates to pad its own coffers, including taking aim at the multimillion dollar estate of Charles “Mask” Lewis Jr., the co-founder of TapouT, a mixed-martial arts clothing line.

Public Administrator/Public Guardian’s Office oversees $38 million in estates and the lives and deaths of more than 1,000 people every year.

The switch is the latest in a series of delays that have pushed back the results of a highly-anticipated review of the Public Administrator/Public Guardian’s Office months.

First anticipated to be done by late October and then the first week of December, County Chief Executive Officer Tom Mauk now expects to have it by January 1.

The Board of Supervisors will consider Colantuono & Levin’s contract at Tuesday’s board meeting.

Criticized in two Orange County grand jury reports in 2009, the Public Administrator/Public Guardian’s Office was back in the public eye in August when then-Assistant District Attorney Todd Spitzer, thought by many to be the heir apparent to the district attorney, was fired after he began asking questions about a conservatorship case being handled by the agency.

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

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.

Attorney Tim Kay, a partner at Snell & Wilmer, who has expertise in conservatorship issues, was selected Oct. 8 to conduct the review.

Kay spent roughly a week conducting interviews and doing research for his review before his contract was yanked from the Board of Supervisors agenda, and he was told his services were no longer needed.

Kay was paid for his time. County officials decided they were going to go in a different direction, said the county’s Assistant Chief Executive Officer Rob Richardson.

Now county staff is turning to Colantuono & Levin. From their website:

“Colantuono & Levin, PC is a municipal law firm with offices in Los Angeles and outside Grass Valley in the Sierra Foothills that represents public and private clients throughout California in municipal law, including public revenues, land use, elections, labor and employment, redevelopment, housing, the California Environmental Quality Act, the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Act, and associated litigation.”

Colantuono & Levin’s report, like Kay’s, will be confidential, according to the proposed contract.

Williams said in previous interviews that he is confident the review will show his staff of 59 people is doing nothing but the work it is charged with. The decision to take over assets or conservatorships is made by judges, not PA/PG staff, Williams said.

Williams, who was re-elected in June for another four-year term, has hired his own attorney, Phil Greer. Well-connected in Republican political circles, Greer has represented four of the five current members of the county board of supervisors and Treasurer-Tax Collector Chriss Street.

The proposed contract lays out the review’s narrow scope, which focuses on whether the PA/PG is manipulating the number or kinds of conservatorships it takes on or if it is unnecessarily taking over estates or conservatorships to make money.

Among the cases to be reviewed is Ruth Hull-Richter, whose 92-year-old mother is in the center of a PA/PG elder abuse investigation. Hull-Richter held a news conference in front of the PA/PG’s office last month, accusing Williams of taking over estates and conservatorships in order to balance his budget.

Those claims have been dismissed as “wild accusations” by Williams.

The county also wants Colantuono & Levin to look into how Williams handled the estate of Lewis, who parlayed his company, TapouT LLC, into assets which he claimed were as worth as much as $15 million.

Lewis was killed in a high-speed crash in Newport Beach in March 2009 when his Ferrari was hit by a Porsche driven by a man now suspected of drunken driving and then slammed into a light pole, ripping the Ferrari in half.

The mother of Lewis’ two children petitioned to administer Lewis’ estate in April 2009. Williams filed his own petition, arguing he was better suited to handle the large, “complex” estate than Diane Larson, who lives in Illinois with the children.

An Orange County Superior Court judge sided with Williams and appointed him the administrator of Lewis’ estate. That decision was overturned in May by the 4th District Court of Appeal, which accused the judge of abusing his discretion by awarding the estate to Williams.