Compromising Positions

Is the DAs office too partisan to be trusted to investigate HB Republicans?

A swirl of slimy shenanigans surrounding Huntington Beach City Hall that has dizzied so many residents into cynicism has its disillusioning implications for the rest of Orange County as well.

Already there is the case of Phil Inglee, a former Huntington Beach planning commissioner who is now foreman of the county grand jury and recently refused to investigate a conflict-of-interest complaint involving Huntington Beach Mayor Dave Garofalo, developer George Argyros, the newly formed Pacific Liberty Bank and a Wal-Mart construction project. Turns out Inglee helped organize the bank, in which he is an investor along with Garofalo, who is a director, and Argyros, who invested after Garofalo voted to approve the proposed Wal-Mart project.

Now, in the wake of that revelation, it may be worth considering one more compromising relationship: the cozy political friendship between Garofalo and the county's top prosecutor, District Attorney Tony Rackaukas.

Rackaukas, elected in 1998, owes his job to the very same Republicans who are grooming Garofalo for a position on the county Board of Supervisors. In his campaign, Rackaukas attacked his opponent, Deputy District Attorney Wally Wade, for his role in investigating Republicans involved in Huntington Beach's Scott Baugh scandal. Rackaukas was aided in his attacks on Wade by Baugh himself and by Baugh's mentor, Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. The clear message of that campaign: Rackaukas would end the DA's policy of pursuing what he called "ticky-tacky" political-corruption cases, especially when those cases involved Republicans.

Rackaukas won in a landslide, took over as DA on Jan. 4, 1999, and 11 days later dropped his office's pursuit of the Baugh case, leaving it up to the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) to fine Baugh. True to his word, sources in the district attorney's office say, one of his earliest acts was to purge his agency's political-corruption unit. They charge that he has since filled it with part-timers and what one source called "smart but basically inexperienced" newcomers "who wouldn't know political corruption if it introduced itself."

In December, Rackaukas turned up at Garofalo's coronation as mayor of Huntington Beach. The mayor's job in Surf City is shared among the council members a year at a time. The succession is normally a subdued, five-minute affair marked by polite clapping and a quick change in the seating chart. Garofalo transformed it into a spectacle worthy of the main showroom at Caesar's Palace.

After taking the oath of office, Garofalo announced to the crowd, "The two most important tenets of the law—equality and justice—will be the cornerstones of my administration."

"Administration" turned out to be the cue for a high school marching band, which wove through the packed City Council chambers playing the Beach Boys' "Surf City." In front of the visitors' gallery, cheerleaders jumped and, well, cheered. As the minutes slowly ticked by, Garofalo—wearing a black jacket, powder-blue shirt and blood-red tie—sat in the center seat of the council dais, smiling broadly. Behind him, as part of the celebration, his tuxedoed girlfriend serenaded him and the rest of the council.

But the smell of victory in the air that night mixed with the stinky specter of political corruption. For two months, since early October 1999, the FPPC had been investigating conflict-of-interest charges concerning Garofalo, Pacific Liberty Bank and a controversial plan to build a Wal-Mart on the grounds of an elementary school.

The charges had already been laid out in a series of Weekly articles: when he's not being mayor, Garofalo is a director of Pacific Liberty Bank. Part of the startup capital for that bank—$100,000 —came from megadeveloper Argyros. At the same time, Argyros wanted his big Wal-Mart project to pass easily through the Huntington Beach City Council, in which Garofalo happily assisted. But Garofalo failed to disclose completely his financial relationship with Argyros until 24 hours after voting in April 1999 to okay the Wal-Mart deal, and then in a manner that the FPPC is investigating on the grounds that it may not satisfy state requirements for full disclosure.

Rackaukas may not read the Weekly.But as he sat up front with other honored guests at Garofalo's celebration, he still might have known something of the charges from his own staff. On Oct. 1, 1999, Rackaukas' office received a complaint letter from a citizen who detailed the dicey relationship. Four days after receiving the complaint, Deputy DA Burl Estes responded that his office wouldn't be looking into the matter.

In the aftermath of Estes' letter, Rackaukas' presence in the City Council chamber sent a powerful message that Garofalo had nothing to fear from the DA's office.

"Political corruption we can't tolerate," Rackaukas said during his 1998 campaign for the DA's office. "We can't have a situation like Chicago."

Maybe not Chicago, but Rackaukas never said anything about Huntington Beach.

 
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