Bada Bing!

Attorney General auditing Orange County DAs questionable use of witness-protection funds

Photo by OCW staffCalling Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas "arrogant" and the "head of the most mismanaged [DA] office in California," state Attorney General Bill Lockyer has ordered an investigation into allegations that Rackauckas abused a secret, taxpayer-funded account reserved for witness protection.

"We normally do a routine catch-up audit every couple of years, but we accelerated this one—moved it up to the front of the list for obvious reasons," Lockyer said in a Nov. 13 interview with the Weekly.

The reason for the haste is indeed obvious: as a 100-page grand jury report documented in June, Rackauckas habitually converts office personnel and funds to highly questionable uses. The second-term DA and his aides have spied on political opponents, exempted friends—particularly wealthy Republican businessmen—from prosecution and partied at local bars where they've drunk vast quantities of booze at government expense. In just one case, Rackauckas assistant Don Blankenship charged the public more than $4,600 in bar bills acquired largely at the Santa Ana Elks Club, a private men's club. The grand jury also found that Blankenship—one of the top law-enforcement officers in Orange County—had a habit of double-billing taxpayers for his expenses. The district attorney dismissed the grand jury report as politically motivated.

Rackauckas' documented abuse of public funds prompted county Auditor-Controller David Sundstrom to launch a review of the DA's expenses last month. If the Sundstrom audit confirms the grand jury's findings, the DA could be forced to reimburse taxpayers. Sources at the county's Hall of Administration say Rackauckas has delayed cooperating with Sundstrom until after Thanksgiving.

However, Lockyer's state audit is part of an unusual sparring match between the AG and Rackauckas. At a Sept. 27 Anaheim fund-raiser, Lockyer told a Los Angeles Times reporter that his office was "basically completed" with investigations into Rackauckas' conduct. But instead of accepting Lockyer's generosity quietly, the DA became even more emboldened. Hours after Lockyer's comments, a defiant Rackauckas declared he would ignore the county's prohibition against paying bar bills for government employees. Though the DA rescinded this policy after county officials threatened an extensive audit of his department (see "Rackauckas Gives Aides Reason to Belch," Oct. 4), the attorney general was not amused.

"The announcement of his policy on paying for booze with public funds was arrogant," said Lockyer. "I can only guess that the timing wasn't [merely] coincidental since it came out a day after my comments to the Times. Of course, it provoked an audit down here by us, and his use of the witness-protection fund is the principle focus."

Lockyer isn't the only official disillusioned with Rackauckas. Republican Supervisor Todd Spitzer had long lobbied on the DA's behalf, but that ended with the release of the scathing grand jury findings and Rackauckas' refusal to properly handle a growing list of office ethical and management scandals. During an Oct. 22 public meeting, the supervisor—who is partly responsible for oversight of $4.9 billion in annual county spending—sought an explanation from the DA on his alcohol expenses. He was greeted with bureaucratic insolence. County employee Chuck Middleton, one of Rackauckas' top aides, laughably told reporters that Spitzer's questions "risked public safety." On Nov. 5, Spitzer won a seat in the state Assembly and made clear his dissatisfaction with the DA. He preempted Lockyer's own announcement of the state's witness-protection fund audit. "It's embarrassing, but the DA has been stonewalling authority," Spitzer told the Weekly. "Has the public's money been used inappropriately? The public deserves to know. It's incredibly important to get the honest answer."

But Rackauckas has some ironic, powerful allies in his effort to thwart oversight of his department. Lockyer acknowledged that some of Orange County's most powerful Democrats—lawyers Wylie Aitken and Al Stokke and former Assemblyman Tom Umberg—have urged the AG's office to ignore complaints about Rackauckas, who is a conservative Republican.

"I've been lobbied by them, and I told them that I thought leadership in this county was inadequate," said Lockyer, a Democrat. "But I was not influenced by that lobbying. . . . Their claim that Rackauckas is a victim of political enemies is just really unfair, really silly stuff. We haven't found criminal law violations yet, but new evidence might show up. There are still people who call or write with relevant information."

So do the citizens of Orange County have legitimate concerns about the DA's ethical lapses? Lockyer leaned forward in his seat, paused only for a moment and said sternly, "Yes."

Anthony Pignataro contributed to this report.
 
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