Gag Order

The war inside the DAs media department

Photos by Yoshitaka Okada (Schroeder)
and Martin Brown (Emard )If Orange County Republicans are all about holding criminals accountable, cutting taxes, bringing common sense to government and promoting high ethical conduct, why do they continue to tolerate District Attorney Tony Rackauckas?

The DA bungles such major prosecutions as the recent Arco pollution case; raids taxpayer-funded accounts to pay for things like a $297-a-night luxury suite in an out-of-state hotel, a $1,470 Mexican vacation and $4,600 in bar tabs at the now infamous Santa Ana Elks Lodge; wastes hundreds of thousands of dollars on employees put questionably on paid leave while simultaneously complaining to county supervisors that his office is understaffed and underfunded; and orders his organized-crime detectives to drop their investigation of a longtime Newport Beach mob suspect who happens to be the DA's campaign advisor, business confidant and, oddest of all, slumber-party buddy.

Regular Weekly readers know the DA's rap sheet is longer than Beach Boulevard and a lot nastier, but you get the picture: Rackauckas is hardly the brave, principled public servant portrayed by his political allies at The Orange County Register. A violent Long Beach gang member as a teenager, a spineless yes-man to Orange County's ever-plotting inner circle of Republican businessmen as an adult, he is the perfect incarnation of those individuals who should never hold public office.

The alarming truth is, however, that even if Rackauckas is someday, say, forced to resign or even indicted, his successor will have to clean—and then rebuild—house. More than 30 prosecutors and detectives, deciding that integrity is more valuable than a steady paycheck, have left the DA's office, taking with them 400 years' worth of experience. But others—each of whom swore an oath to serve the public, not Rackauckas—have stayed, watched, collected their generous paychecks and kept their mouths shut.

Hello, Chief Assistant District Attorney Chuck Middleton!

The DA's staff still includes honest people, but their good deeds are sadly overshadowed by others who follow Rackauckas' lead and brazenly use the powerful government agency as if it has been privatized. Deputy District Attorney Susan Kang Schroeder comes to mind. In league with fellow deputy DA—and Republican partisan—Scott Steiner in 2000, Schroeder was caught using DA resources to aid her personal GOP candidate choice in a local judicial campaign. Caught, but not—in this upside-down world of "justice"— punished.

Once an obscure deputy city attorney in Anaheim, Schroeder hit the employment jackpot when her husband, Mike—a former California Republican Party boss and attorney for Representative Bob Dornan—ran Rackauckas' successful 1998 and 2002 DA campaigns. To the victors went the spoils: unremarkable in Anaheim, Susan Schroeder made the short move down the 57 freeway to the DA's Santa Ana headquarters, where she took a job as a deputy DA.

Unlike his wife, Mike Schroeder is polished and cordial. He's also an intense political strategist who sometimes finds himself in over his head. Confident that the news would never get back to Orange County, he bragged to a 1997 Northern California GOP audience the gist of what the Weekly alone had already reported: he had engineered a secret pact with an ambitious Los Angeles Times reporter to lend credibility to Dornan's fanciful and ultimately dismissed accusation that Loretta Sanchez stole the 1996 election.

I mention Mike's inadvertent confession because I now wonder if sordid press manipulation and a lack of appreciation for journalistic independence come naturally to the Schroeders. Perhaps realizing the dearth of her legal skills, Rackauckas has lately assigned Susan to manage an area where she is even less qualified: OCDA media relations.

Sigh.

Look around California—no, the entire United States—and see if you find a district attorney with worse news coverage or media relations than ours. You won't. Nobody needs a capable PR professional more than a scoundrel operating in the public eye. But like Tori Richards before her, Schroeder engages the media with the same ugly style of schoolyard favoritism with which Rackauckas closes criminal cases against his pals like Ambassador to Spain George Argyros and Newport Beach businessman Patrick N. Di Carlo. Under Rackauckas' unwritten but strenuously enforced rule, reporters who stray from the DA's tortuous media spin are blacklisted.

Schroeder has taken to the job of enforcer with the ferocity of a true believer. At the Orange County Republican Party election-night party in November 2002, she walked into the press area of the Sutton Place Hotel ballroom gripping a clipboard and searching, no doubt, for a Los Angeles TV reporter to beguile. When she saw me, her eyes narrowed coldly and her mouth contorted as if she were having a painful bathroom experience. It was comic, over the top—and perfectly in keeping with her style. From the look, I thought she might throw a punch. Instead, she snorted something inaudible and darted off. She is Rackauckas' key liaison to the media, but she has never accepted one of my telephone calls or returned any of my messages.

Schroeder punishes, but she also rewards. Newspapers that routinely marble their DA stories with ham-fisted flatteries or merely ignore embarrassing facts about Rackauckas are rewarded with insider scoops and exclusives on major breaking crime stories.

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