Our DA Now Has an Attorney

District Attorney Anthony "Tony" Rackauckas has retained high-profile attorney Tom Umberg as his counsel in the ongoing California attorney general/Orange County grand jury criminal investigation of his office, the Weekly has learned.

Neither Rackauckas' press office nor Umberg returned repeated calls for comment. Since December, however, Attorney General Bill Lockyer has subpoenaed dozens of current and former DA staff to testify before the grand jury. The direction of the investigation is unclear, but sources close to the grand jury say the panel's criminal-justice subcommittee is looking into "possible felonies" concerning Rackauckas' conduct during the past four years. These same sources say Rackauckas testified last month. Although the investigation was extensively covered before the March 5 DA election, Rackauckas easily cruised to victory, beating his challenger by 24 percentage points.

The same sources speculate the grand jury will have to act quickly before it dissolves in July. Their options are myriad. They can file a report with the county Board of Supervisors, which in the past has led to nothing. They can hand down indictments or have the attorney general's office indict. Or they can convene a special grand jury and focus eight hours a day, five days a week on the DA's office. Or they can defer to Lockyer, who would then sit down with Rackauckas and ask him to resign or face charges.

Of course, they can always do nothing at all, but sources say this isn't likely given the time and resources they've invested.

Rackauckas' selection of Umberg as his attorney is, at the very least, curious. Umberg was once a U.S. attorney and has ties to the federal criminal-justice system, but there's no known federal investigation of Rackauckas.

Then there's the matter of party politics: Umberg is a prominent Democrat, while Rackauckas is a conservative Republican. Of course, the county's best criminal-defense attorneys are Democrats. The most prominent, Al Stokke, has defended Arnel Management Co.—run by current Ambassador to Spain George Argyros—against charges the firm illegally withheld millions of dollars in security deposits from apartment tenants, as well as embattled GOP Councilmen Dave Garofalo (of Huntington Beach) and Shawn Boyd (Seal Beach) against corruption charges.

This isn't the first time Umberg's name has popped up in connection to the Rackauckas regime. On May 15, 2001, Donald Blankenship—Rackauckas' bureau of investigation chief—invited other law-enforcement officials to meet Umberg, who was then beginning his unsuccessful run for insurance commissioner.

"There are few politicians on which I would place a personal endorsement or stake my reputation," wrote Blankenship on official district attorney's office stationery. "Tom Umberg is one such individual, and I am proud to help spread the word to law enforcement."

Choosing Umberg, while unusual, is advantageous to Rackauckas. In fact, Rackauckas has been cozying up to Lockyer—a powerful Democrat for the past decade—since the investigation began. In November 2001, Rackauckas steered an immense $7.4 million legal contract for environmental prosecution to the Newport Beach-based firm Robinson, Calcagnie and Robinson. The firm has no environmental-law experience, but its partners are tight with Lockyer.

Being selected as Rackauckas' defense attorney also comes at a good time for Umberg, who lost the March 5 primary race for state insurance commissioner despite high-profile endorsements from consumer-advocate celebrities such as Erin Brockovich.

It is also just the latest bizarre twist in Umberg's career. In the early 1990s, Umberg was the golden boy of the Orange County Democratic Party. A former military prosecutor and U.S. attorney, Umberg defeated Republican Curt Pringle for the state Assembly in 1990, where he served for two terms.

Despite his political connections, however, Umberg is not a criminal-defense attorney. Currently a partner in the Irvine and Washington, D.C., offices of the law firm Morrison & Foerster, Umberg says in his official biography that he "focuses on federal and state policy and regulatory matters and on domestic and international project development and trade and investment, with an emphasis on Latin America."

Umberg's Latin America emphasis comes from the three years he spent as deputy drug czar in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Clinton administration—a job he got after losing his bid to be state attorney general to then-state Senator Bill Lockyer. Conservative columnist Arianna Huffington even called Umberg the "architect" of Clinton's Plan Colombia, a billion-dollar aid package to the Colombian government's long-running war against Marxist guerrillas and drug traffickers.

It was Umberg's California Democratic Party credentials—he was state director of the 1996 Clinton/Gore campaign—that got him into the White House, and sources have speculated those same ties brought him to Rackauckas' side.

 
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