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
For those few who've had a glimpse of Tony Rackauckas' secretive spending habits, it must have been amusing to watch the district attorney recently threaten that any cuts to his agency budget "will be borne by victims" of crime. The self-described fiscal conservative DA says he's a penny-pincher who spends his $71 million annual budget solely to lock up criminals.
But a Weekly review of Rackauckas' use of taxpayer dollars—a review Rackauckas has illegally attempted to thwart—proves that the Republican DA spends public funds with reckless abandon. In more than 70 cases, the DA used government funds on expenses that have more to do with enjoying swank out-of-town resorts than prosecuting thugs. For example:
•In January 1999—just three weeks into his first term—Rackauckas checked himself into a Palm Springs resort. The ostensible purpose of his visit: a workshop for new district attorneys. But records from the three-day stay show the DA charged taxpayers $820 for his suite, phone calls to his office, three visits to the resort spa, two in-room videos and food. In apparent violation of the county's per diem policy, Rackauckas double billed another $32 for meals.
•Immediately after his Palm Springs trip, Rackauckas and his wife, Kay, flew to Monterrey, Mexico, where they charged at least $1,470 to taxpayers for a three-day personal vacation.
•During eight subsequent taxpayer-funded trips to resorts in Palm Springs and San Diego, the DA spent more than $125 for spa fees and video rentals.
•In October 2002, Rackauckas flew to Washington, D.C., for a two-day conference on missing children and charged taxpayers a whopping $297 per night for a luxurious suite on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Such lavish spending wasn't limited to Rackauckas. The DA approved similar sprees on behalf of close political allies in the office, particularly DA aide Donald Blankenship.
Blankenship became famous last year when he was singled out by the 2000-2001 Orange County grand jury for billing taxpayers more than $4,600 in bar tabs. Rackauckas blocked the Weekly's access to those bills, but in receipts obtained under the California Public Records Act, it's apparent that Blankenship—head of the DA's detective's bureau—views the public treasury as his own piggy bank:
•According to the grand jury, Blankenship's staff routinely had difficulty finding their boss for days at a time. We now know why: he has taken more than 55 out-of-town trips to places such as Palm Springs, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Bernardino, Napa, Reno, San Diego and Lake Tahoe. The trips have cost taxpayers more than $23,000.
•An overwhelming majority of Blankenship's travel has not been for official duties but rather to socialize during private meetings with such organizations as the California Peace Officers' Memorial Foundation and the Public Employees Service Organization union. Blankenship has billed taxpayers more than $12,000 for his personal airfare, luxury hotel rooms, expensive car rentals, in-room videos and spa visits.
•At a time when Rackauckas has told the county Board of Supervisors that every penny counts in the war against crime, Blankenship routinely checked himself into pricey boutique resorts such as BW Inn at Palm Springs ($165 per night), Humphrey's Half Moon Inn & Suites in San Diego ($133 per night), Embassy Suites in Lake Tahoe ($140 per night), San Diego Doubletree ($136 per night), Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs ($102 per night), Holiday Inn Capitol Plaza in Sacramento ($118 per night) and Palm Springs Marquis ($139 per night).
•In April 2000, Blankenship attended a sheriff's association three-day conference in Palm Springs and checked into the Hyatt Regency Suites, where he billed taxpayers $95 per night, plus $14 to relax in the resort spa and $16 for valet parking.
•During a February 2000 trip to Sacramento on personal business for a police officer's social group, Blankenship charged taxpayers $680, including an incredible $101 per day for a Hertz car rental.
•During a September 1999 personal trip to Lake Tahoe, Blankenship charged the public $725, including $140 per night for a suite, $194 for a car rental—and then returned the car without bothering to refuel. The additional refueling cost to taxpayers at $3.39 per gallon in penalty fees: $27.
•Blankenship has billed the public at least $309 so that he could attend going-away, award or retirement parties.
•In January 2001, Blankenship attended a four-hour DA association "winter workshop" at the Hyatt Suites in Palm Springs and could have returned home to Orange County by 7 p.m., but he chose instead to stay at the secluded, ritzy BW Inn, where taxpayers paid $165 for his suite.
The true extent of the questionable reimbursements is unknown. In December, the Weekly filed a public records act request seeking copies of all expenses for the DA and several of this top managers. The public records act—a safeguard against abuses of office by government officials—requires agencies to relinquish records no later than 20 days after receiving the request. Rackauckas took three months, shuffled a three-inch stack of papers out of chronological order, removed receipt evidence in numerous cases and then claimed he had honestly complied with the request.
But that wasn't the worst of it. A source in the DA's office asserts that Rackauckas provided the Weekly with less than half of the requested records. According to that source, Rackauckas, Blankenship and Deputy DA Susan Kang Schroeder (who spent more than $261 per night in public funds for a opulent San Francisco hotel room in June 2000) have billed taxpayers more than $47,000.
Rackauckas' spending sprees have earned him scorn in his own party. In one of his first moves as a new state assemblyman, Republican Todd Spitzer authored a bill that would block the DA's use of taxpayer funds for bar tabs. As an Orange County supervisor last year, Spitzer became annoyed when Rackauckas fought efforts by county auditors to review his department's expenses. Rackauckas—who calls himself the "most far-reaching reformer" in Orange County government—claimed an outside review of his expenses would "risk public safety." Spitzer described the DA's explanation as "embarrassing."