By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Outraged by last month's grand jury report detailing corruption in the district attorney's office, six senior criminal detectives have retired and another dozen officers are expected to follow them in coming weeks, the Weekly has learned.
The Orange County grand jury's 100-page "Office of the District Attorney: An In-Depth Investigation" report accused DA Tony Rackauckas and Don Blankenship, the head of his criminal-investigation division, of cronyism, mismanagement and misuse of public resources.
Several prosecutors say they fear the summer fallout will cost the government agency responsible for prosecuting criminals 500 years' worth of gumshoe experience.
During a pre-July 4 retirement dinner at Anaheim's Phoenix Club, the mood was a mixture of anger and relief—anger for having their law-enforcement careers end under the stench of corruption that constantly plagues Rackauckas; relief because, as of July 1, veteran DA investigators became eligible for a new generous retirement package that can earn them as much as 90 percent of the full-time salary.
During the party, sources said, Erickson and Miller spoke about the "importance of integrity" in law enforcement—clearly a shot at the county's top prosecutor. Just one week later, DA officials attended another retirement party—this one for eight colleagues.
"Most of the experienced, ethical people are going," said a high-ranking source with insider knowledge of the DA's office. "They are embarrassed to say they are from Orange County—especially to other law-enforcement personnel. Only Rackauckas' sycophants and old cronies of Blankenship will remain."
DA spokeswoman Tori Richards denied any connection between the grand jury findings and the departures. "Most police agencies in the county have scads of people retiring," she said.
Whatever the reason, another veteran law-enforcement source said the unprecedented mass exodus is "a huge loss to the DA's office."
Not only is Rackauckas' office bleeding key, veteran personnel, but it's also bleeding scarce taxpayer funds at, of all places, cocktail bars and private men's clubs.
The grand jury determined that Blankenship—the inexperienced head of the Bureau of Investigation, which takes responsibility for organized crime, major fraud and terrorist threats—often preferred schmoozing at public expense with campaign consultants, reporters and lobbyists at bars, clubs and out-of-town conferences rather than managing his important division.
"He is frequently not in the office during normal business hours because of meetings and conferences within the county and outside the county," the panel reported.
On other occasions, Blankenship was not available "at the time important decisions concerning the handling of organized-crime unit cases needed to be made" and that he infrequently supervised mob-squad detectives.
But it wasn't as if the grand jury couldn't track Blankenship when he was MIA. Using county expense reports, the panel unearthed a dizzying trail of bar and hotel receipts that would have impressed Sam Spade. Though the DA had established a secret "Special Fund" earmarked for key criminal investigations, Blankenship used the account for personal expenses such as bar bills and a private club membership. In addition to demanding $19,600 for conference travel expenses during fiscal year 2000-2001, Blankenship spent and Rackauckas approved another $4,623 in personal expenditures—mostly on alcohol at the Santa Ana Elk's Club. The detective's records were vague, but the panel also determined that he had probably received "double payment" for an undetermined amount of his claimed expenses.
The grand jury's account of Blankenship's "casual and unwarranted use" of public funds was in some instances comical. On Nov. 10, 2000, for example, Orange County's top criminal investigator spent more than four hours drinking inside two Palm Springs hotel bars and ended the night unable to perform simple math. Expense account records show that Blankenship took the maximum $32 per diem and, at 5:53 p.m. inside the Marquis Hotel bar, also charged $21.55 worth of alcohol to taxpayers. Three and a half hours later, he charged another $76.09—a number he derived by incorrectly adding a $38.09 booze bill to a $5 tip.
To be fair, Rackauckas didn't hire Blankenship for his arithmetic or, for that matter, his professional skills. Before replacing Barry Foye—a highly skilled, tough, old-school dick demoted because he wouldn't condone Rackauckas' ethical lapses—Blankenship had spent 13 years as a media spokesman for local cops. He headed the Santa Ana Police Officer's Association, a job hilariously unrelated to managing a 185-employee bureau of investigation for the county's prosecutors. It wasn't a stretch when the grand jury concluded that he "had little experience as a detective and no command experience."
But the DA didn't care. Blankenship's personal loyalty was more important than the ability to hunt down crooks. In 1998, he had delivered his association's endorsement and a $2,025 contribution to Rackauckas.
According to the grand jury, the difference between Foye and Blankenship is the difference between Mayberry RFD's Andy Taylor and Barney Fife—except that Blankenship might not be so benevolent. Blankenship ordered one of his agents to spend more than seven hours in November 2000 trying to pin a ridiculous misdemeanor charge on former DA Assistant Chief Devallis Rutledge, whose only crime, it turned out, was to have publicly criticized Rackauckas.
If the grand jury is right, Blankenship is a repeat offender when it comes to misuse of public resources:
•After his son—who was heading for the beach—parked his car illegally in a library lot, the chief ordered a commander in the major fraud unit to investigate the towing company that towed the car away.
•On four occasions, DA investigators were sent on surveillance missions targeting Anthony C. Rackauckas because the DA feared that his son, then a 30-year-old Riverside County resident, might drive with a suspended license.
•When the adult ex-boyfriend of Blankenship's daughter went missing, DA investigators launched an undercover missing-person operation—normally the job of the Sheriff's Department or local police.
•Hoping to find dirt on a Rackauckas critic, DA investigators secretly entered a veteran prosecutor's office on a Friday night, removed the hard drive from his computer, copied it at a cost to taxpayers of $1,400 and, finding nothing improper, quickly re-installed it on a Saturday morning.
The incidents prompted the grand jury to hand Rackauckas recommendations that were adopted at the turn of the past century in other parts of the country. They noted that "the hiring of investigative command staff should be based solely on merit" and that the DA "should enact a comprehensive written policy concerning the inappropriate use of county time, equipment and resources."
But don't expect real reform from Rackauckas, who is hoping public attention to the corruption scandal fades quickly. In a press statement, he claimed that Blankenship's "leadership has resulted in significant benefits to the public." Notably, he gave no examples. Even when it came to Blankenship's bar hopping on the public dole, the DA sounded more like a sniveling bureaucrat than a tough, law abiding prosecutor.
"To the extent that accounting practices need to be revised to ensure that all county monies are properly spent and reported," he said, "that will be done."
Bottoms up!This is the third in a series of articles based on the grand jury's findings of corruption in the district attorney's office.