By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
When Tony Rackauckas took over the Orange County district attorney's office in 1999, veteran prosecutors say, one of the first signs of trouble was the unforgettable appearance of Tori Richards. A reporter who covered Rackauckas' campaign and befriended his wife, Richards had quietly lobbied for and received a plum, newly created job in the DA's office: media relations director.
Normally, government press flacks—especially novices like Richards—play low-key around high-level staffers such as the county's battle-scarred criminal prosecutors. But Richards—who wrote a column covering Orange County legal news for the Los Angeles Daily Journal—saw a more prominent role for herself.
At the DA's office, parking spaces had been historically handed out in large part according to seniority, with the best slots going to longtime attorneys and investigators. One of Richards' first acts was to ignore convention and demand a prime parking slot. Senior staff rejected the move as unfair, but the $73,000-per-year PR flack went over their heads to Rackauckas. The next time prosecutors saw Richards get out of her car, that car was parked in a spot once reserved for a career prosecutor.
"It didn't take long for us to see that Tori was someone who didn't mind breaking the rules to get her way," said a veteran prosecutor. "In fact, it turned out to be one of our first signs that Rackauckas surrounds himself with disturbing individuals."
You wouldn't know it from reading The Orange County Register or the Los Angeles Times, but Richards clearly disturbed the 2001-02 Orange County grand jury. Last month, the citizens panel—working in concert with the state attorney general's office—issued a stinging rebuke of Rackauckas and outlined his penchant for sleazy ethical lapses that benefit friends and punish political enemies.
They included a special section criticizing the DA's feisty media adviser. According to the grand jury, the Rackauckas-Richards relationship illustrates the back-scratching cronyism that typifies the DA's office.
"A writer [Richards] employed by a legal newspaper wrote articles about the 1997-98 campaign for district attorney," the grand jury discovered. "The writer attended fund-raisers for the current district attorney and became friends with his wife, Deputy District Attorney Kay Rackauckas. The writer and others recommended to DA-elect Rackauckas that the district attorney's office needed a press officer. . . . The writer assumed the position. There was no recruitment or application process for the position. Further, there is no job description or any written qualification requirements."
Richards says any fuss over her parking priviledges is "pretty petty" and insists that her hiring was not suspect.
"Mr. Rackauckas thought I was the best person for the job considering my 14 years spent as a newspaper reporter," she told the Weekly. "I believe the grand jury included me in their report because the same detractors that complained about Rackauckas did not personally like me because I had written some unfavorable articles about the [Mike] Capizzi administration."
Grand jurors were mum on what prompted their review of Richards, but it's clear they don't believe she's qualified for the job and should not be given access—as Rackauckas had apparently given her—to sensitive criminal investigation files.
"There should be written minimum-qualification requirements for this position, including a background in criminal law," the grand jury concluded. "There should be specific guidelines and limitations for the position, including need-to-know criteria."
They could have also suggested that the DA's flack obey basic decency rules. Instead of viewing herself as a taxpayer-funded public servant, Richards' top priority is Rackauckas' political health. She routinely uses the agency's records and sources as a reward for reporters who go easy on her boss—just ask Stuart Pfeifer at the Times. Near the climax of Rackauckas' 2002 DA campaign against challenger Wally Wade, Pfeifer orchestrated a surprise Rackauckas endorsement—a photo-op with DeWayne McKinney, a man Rackauckas wrongly prosecuted and who subsequently served 19 years in prison. Within weeks, Pfeifer obtained internal DA files he used to draft a glowing Times story on Rackauckas' record in office—an account Rackauckas converted to campaign use.
Richards also apparently has no problem using dishonesty to protect her benefactor. For eight months while the secretive grand jury probed into the DA's questionable affairs—a fact known throughout the DA's office—Richards blatantly misled the public. There was no investigation because there were no ethical lapses, she repeatedly insisted.
"The attorney general does not have any pending investigation against Tony Rackauckas or the DA's office," Richards e-mailed the Weekly on Nov. 28, 2001. "Mr. [Bill] Lockyer informed the district attorney of this in a phone call about a month ago."
Richards never complied with our request to see the phone records supporting her assertion but continued to deny the existence of the investigation. "I was in Mr. Rackauckas' office when he was talking to the attorney general, so I think Mr. Lockyer is a better source on this!" she e-mailed the next day.
A month later, Richards was at it again. "There is no investigation by the AG," she e-mailed us twice on Dec. 31, 2001. The day after the grand jury report appeared, Richards continued to insist there was no attorney general investigation—despite the fact that Assistant State Attorney General James Dutton directed the grand jury, going so far as to subpoena and question witnesses.