Buddies

Is the DA trying to befriend the man charged with investigating his friendships?

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has always had a problem with friends. His friendship with Newport Beach resident Patrick Di Carlo—who leaned on Rackauckas a few months ago to get DA organized-crime investigators off his back—proved a major embarrassment. Rackauckas' proximity to big-time Republican contributor George Argyros proved problematic when it came time for the DA to investigate charges that Argyros' firm Arnel Management bilked thousands of mostly minority apartment tenants out of millions of dollars. The Tony Rackauckas Foundation, a secret fund soliciting money from Tony's many friends, went undisclosed for a couple of years; when it was publicized, Tony shut it down. And woe unto those not sufficiently friendly in return: Rackauckas' shuffling of DA personnel insufficiently generous during his 1998 campaign for the office—and his hiring and promotion of those who were—is another sore spot.

Things got so bad at the DA's office that two former investigators flew to Sacramento in February and pleaded with Attorney General Bill Lockyer—a Democrat—to investigate Rackauckas—a Republican—for possible conflicts of interest. That investigation, still ongoing, poses a problem for Rackauckas, who faces reelection next year.

Now, evidence has emerged that Rackauckas may be working to befriend Lockyer.

It came during an otherwise dull Nov. 6 county Board of Supervisors meeting. The supes were about to award a lucrative county contract. Rackauckas had proposed paying $7.4 million to a high-priced law firm to help the DA's office prosecute half a dozen oil companies for allegedly contaminating local groundwater with highly toxic gasoline and MTBE.

Shortly before the vote, Third District Supervisor Todd Spitzer waved an unsigned fax before the audience. Spitzer said the fax alleged that the DA's contract with the Newport Beach-based law firm Robinson, Calcagnie & Robinson is, in fact, a payoff designed to warm Lockyer's heart in the midst of his investigation.

Despite Spitzer's assertions that the fax "is a ridiculous, fabricated piece of trash that isn't worth the paper it's printed on," closer scrutiny turns up evidence of close ties between the Robinson firm and Lockyer.

Partner Jeoffrey Robinson wouldn't comment for this story, but it's clear he and Lockyer know each other well. His firm is one of Lockyer's regular big-money contributors; on May 23, the law firm gave the attorney general's campaign $10,000. In the spring of 1999, Robinson and Lockyer attended an intimate meet-and-greet at the home of state Senator Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana). According to one attendee, Robinson introduced Lockyer to the crowd at a small table out back by the swimming pool. Lockyer then spoke briefly before the assembled officials and attorneys—including Rackauckas—highlighting his recent reading of Tom Brokaw's book The Greatest Generation.

Rackauckas was already acquainted with Robinson. They were Orange County deputy DAs during the 1980s, and they even worked together on a case involving convicted murderer John Galen Davenport.

Despite that connection, the Robinson firm has contributed a measly $675 to Rackauckas' campaign since October 1999. Rackauckas refunded that money this past Aug. 6. Robinson's real money arrived in the DA's campaign account less conspicuously on June 30 in $1,000 checks from Robinson, his brother Mark (the first Robinson listed in the firm's name) and fellow partner Kevin Calcagnie. There is no indication that Rackauckas ever refunded that money.

DA spokeswoman Tori Richards didn't respond to questions concerning Rackauckas' relationship with Robinson. She also added cryptically "the firm does not pose a conflict for the district attorney's office based on the reasons you have provided."

The details of the Lockyer-Rackauckas-Robinson relationship never came out during the Nov. 6 supervisors meeting, despite the strange way in which the contract came to the supervisors' attention. Unusually, the DA never issued a request for formal proposals on the contract and never put the contract out to bid. And another thing: from Aug. 14 until Oct. 16, the proposed contract appeared on successive supervisor agendas, always with another law firm's name—Santa Monica-based Liner, Yankelevitz, Sunshine & Regenstreif—as the recipient. Rackauckas repeatedly pulled the contract from the agenda—"continuing" the item, in the vernacular of public meetings. But on Nov. 6, the contract was on the agenda again, the Liner firm had suddenly disappeared, and Robinson was the winner.

"The Robinson firm was chosen because we felt they were the best qualified to do the job," said Richards in an e-mailed response to the Weekly's questions concerning the contract. "Not only is the firm nationally renowned for its work on environmental issues, the Robinson firm is located in Orange County and has a vested interest in seeing that justice is done in this case."

But among legal experts, the firm isn't renowned for environmental-contamination work. Tobacco litigation, road safety and product-liability litigation—in all these areas, the company is highly respected. And equally respected for its powerful political friends.

 
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