Tonys New Suit

Weekly sues DAs office over secret files

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is illegally withholding documents that show how much his office paid a law firm with ties to the state attorney general investigating corruption charges against Rackauckas, a lawsuit filed by the Weekly charges.

Filed Feb. 26, the suit seeks records of the DA's unprecedented $7.4 million contract with a Newport Beach law firm working on the county's case against ARCO gas stations. Though the firm—Robinson, Calcagnie, Robinson—had no known environmental experience, it is closely tied to Democratic Party officials, including Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Rackauckas, a highly partisan Republican, hired the firm in November 2001, after he learned Lockyer's staff were behind a grand jury probe of the DA's office. In the 2002 election alone, the firm gave the attorney general $115,000.

In December, Rackauckas let ARCO settle the most serious environmental-pollution case in county history before trial and then celebrated his handling of the case as a model for prosecutors nationwide. He described his work in the case as "priceless." Priceless, indeed: observers were horrified to learn that the corporate-friendly DA had let ARCO go without paying even $1 in civil penalties. According to court records, the multibillion-dollar conglomerate had knowingly polluted the county's soil with the gas additive MTBE and jeopardized the invaluable local groundwater supply for more than a decade. MTBE leaks were found at 102 of 132 ARCO-owned or -operated gas stations. At one Fountain Valley station, soil tests found 3,400,000 parts per billion of MTBE. Experts consider the chemical dangerous at five parts per billion.

As Rackauckas settled the case in mid-December, the Weekly filed a request under the California Public Records Act to inspect his agency's billing records for Robinson, Calcagnie, Robinson. It's unusual for government agencies to keep a lid on such spending information, but on Dec. 23, Rackauckas claimed in a letter to the Weekly that he could not release the records because the case against ARCO was "ongoing." (ARCO and the DA had settled the case five days earlier on Dec. 17.) He also asserted that keeping secret records of the payments to the Democratic firm "clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure." He did not offer any explanation.

Without any sense of irony, the DA announced in January that he might make his official office motto "Doing Justice for the People."

Weekly attorneys told the court they believe Rackauckas has no legal grounds for blocking disclosure. They noted that the California Supreme Court has ruled that "implicit in the democratic process is the notion that government should be accountable for its actions" and that "in order to verify accountability, individuals must have access" to government files because "access permits checks against the arbitrary exercise of official power and secrecy in the political process."

A hearing date for the Weekly's suit has not been scheduled.

Rackauckas has a long, sordid history of secrecy:

•After his election in 1998 to the powerful DA position, he created the Tony Rackauckas Foundation, ostensibly a charity. But news reports revealed that the group had traded official DA badges for large contributions and had given only a minuscule amount to charity. Embarrassed, Rackauckas disbanded the group—and then refused to show the Board of Supervisors records of the foundations' activities.

•In August 2001, the Weekly asked under the public records act to inspect records of the Rackauckas-created Vietnamese Advisory Commission. He boldly argued that he could not produce any records because he was unaware of the group's existence. A Sept. 26, 2001, press release by Rackauckas noted he "formed the Vietnamese Advisory Commission in December 2000."

•During the 2001-2002 grand jury investigation into the DA's conduct, Rackauckas blocked a subpoena served on his wife, then-Deputy DA Kay Rackauckas, by claiming for months that he could not find her. Rather than answer the grand jury's questions, Kay Rackauckas took a leave of absence from work and surfaced only after the grand jury closed its investigation.

•In early 2001, Rackauckas ordered his organized-crime detectives not to investigate Patrick N. DiCarlo and to turn over for destruction all files on the millionaire Newport Beach businessman. DiCarlo, a longtime mob suspect, became close friends with Rackauckas after he launched his first DA campaign. Since then, DiCarlo has showered Rackauckas with contributions and sleepover invitations. In perhaps his most audacious statement to date, the DA has claimed that blocking the DiCarlo probe "prevented" a conflict of interest.

•The DA has charged taxpayers thousands of dollars for bar tabs at swanky resorts and private men's clubs, but he has refused to disclose the expense records to the county's auditor even though the alcohol bills violated county policy.

Not surprisingly, in June 2002, the county's grand jury issued an unprecedented 100-page report outlining these and dozens of other examples when Rackauckas used his official powers to aid campaign contributors and punish perceived personal enemies.

 
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