Thoroughness or Foot-Dragging

DA takes slow road in Garofalo probe

Photo by Jack GouldWhat were DA investigators looking for during their crack-of-dawn raid on Huntington Beach City Councilman Dave Garofalo's home, office, banks—and business partner Ed Laird? It's been eight weeks since they hauled computers, emptied file cabinets and collected canceled checks during a dramatic April 12 sweep. But the DA's office still won't say what they expected to find.

Common practice—as well as Section 1534(a) of the California Penal Code—mandates that search warrants be filed with the court and open to the public within 10 working days of their issue. Under that prescription, this warrant (signed by Superior Court Judge Ronald P. Kreber on April 12) should have been filed and available for public scrutiny on April 25.

But requests by the Weekly for access to the search warrant (which itemizes what investigators wanted to seize) and its supporting affidavit (which explains why they wanted to seize it) have been repeatedly denied. Further, a DA official said the documents might never be released.

"We have not yet filed the affidavit and have not determined whether or not it will be sealed," explained DA spokeswoman Tori Richards. "We still have some more work on the case before we file the search warrant return, so I don't want to speculate on when that might be."

This situation would be considered unusual under any circumstances. But since this case involves Garofalo and Laird, who are both connected to the Republican machine that helped elect Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas in 1998, the withholding of information has raised suspicions—especially since Rackauckas attracted the support of that machine with a campaign promise to de-emphasize the DA's focus on political-corruption cases.

"This looks like the latest example of the district attorney's continuing pattern of delay and avoidance and lack of integrity," said Susie Newman, a wealthy Republican and former Huntington Beach planning commissioner. "It goes all the way back to my original complaint."

In 1999, Newman alerted the DA's office to a possible conflict of interest between Garofalo and developer George Argyros. (Garofalo supported a Wal-Mart that Argyros is building in the middle of an outraged Huntington Beach neighborhood, while Argyros invested $100,000 in a small bank where Garofalo is on the board of directors.) The DA refused to pursue Newman's lead. Only after the Weekly led an investigation by several local newspapers that uncovered Garofalo's possibly illegal mixing of his official duties with personal profit (voting at least 87 times in favor of people who advertised in his newspaper, the city Visitor Guide or the chamber of commerce directory he published) did the DA begin its current investigation. But that was nearly 11 months ago.

"This is just taking far too long—there is no nexus between the alleged crime and the eventual outcome," Newman said. "Apparently, Rackauckas feels more accountable to the kingpins of the Republican Party than anybody else. Garofalo is being allowed to serve out his term in office while the DA has these secretive delays. And if the charges aren't true, it's cruel to leave Garofalo with his life hanging. This isn't due process. It's water torture."

Garofalo has already accumulated more than $30,000 in attorney's fees, according to a request he filed with the Huntington Beach city attorney, asking that taxpayers pick up the tab for his legal bills as well as any civil fines that may ultimately be levied against him. The City Council rejected that request June 4 by a 5-1 vote.

"As far as Garofalo is concerned, no one can compare this case to any other in the office," said Richards, "because I don't think we've ever undertaken a case where we had to go back through hundreds of votes over a several-year time period. Not to mention dealing with financial and business records."

Extensions on the execution of search warrants are not unheard of. Prosecutors sometimes dread the publication of warrants and affidavits because they may tip off their strategy to the defense. Sources close to this case tell the Weekly that the DA investigators assigned to it are seasoned, honest and thorough—and that they're using the extra time to build the best possible case.

According to one source, however, those investigators are also mindful of what happened to a former colleague, Steve Douglass, after he completed a similarly rigorous investigation of Argyros. Douglass assembled a record of thousands of incidents that DA investigators said proved Argyros' property-management company, Arnel, employed a "systematic ripoff" scheme to siphon millions of dollars from apartment tenants, and he filed suit in February. But Rackauckas ordered the charges withdrawn 90 minutes later and tried to negotiate a sweetheart settlement with Arnel before finally handing off the case to the state attorney general. Meanwhile, President George W. Bush has nominated Argyros his ambassador to Spain.

"These investigators are not front guys for [Tony Rackauckas]," said the source, who asked not to be identified. "So they're worried. They're leery of getting the rug pulled out from under them."

Richards, however, insists the wheels of justice are turning, no matter how imperceptibly.

"This is a very large, time-consuming case because of the paperwork involved," she said. "We're talking about hundreds of thousands of pages. Ask me about the status in about three weeks."

 
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