Gag Order

The war inside the DAs media department

Hello, Orange County Register!

In the summer of 2002, Rackauckas was in the middle of his biggest PR crisis. Following an eight-month investigation, the county's citizen-led grand jury had found overwhelming proof of the DA's Nixonian dirty tricks, gross mismanagement and corruption of justice. They issued a stinging, fact-filled, 100-page report. To Rackauckas' delight, no newspaper downplayed the evidence more than the Register, the county's largest-circulation publication. This is what that paper opined to its readers: "We're generally pleased with the job he's doing."

As the crisis subsided, the DA took two of that paper's writers to lunch. It wasn't Tony or his reelection committee that paid the $50 bill. It was you, the taxpayer. I have a copy of the restaurant receipt.

Like rats in a cocaine experiment, Register reporters keep getting rewards for appropriate behavior. Most recently Schroeder gave them exclusive case details on the story about Moises Ibarra, the 24-year-old father now accused of beating his son to death. On May 16, she also talked to Santa Ana-based City News Service and told them that she would ask a judge to raise Ibarra's bail. Funny: records show the Ibarra case belongs to senior homicide prosecutor Kevin Haskins and before that to Karen Schatzle, a deputy DA in the Family Protection Unit.

Which leads us to this question: Why is Schroeder—classified on county payroll records as a deputy DA III—playing media director and pulling down almost $100,000 a year in the first place?

You might join us in our confusion if you knew that the office already has a full-time PR director: Michelle Emard, who was hired last fall and arrived with an impressive background in media affairs. Before joining the DA's office, Emard handled the media circus surrounding the most contentious land battle in county history: the proposal to build an international airport at El Toro. There, Emard demonstrated that she knew the mark of a respected media spokesperson for the government. She was evenhanded and honest with reporters.

But if Emard thought her $74,000-a-year job with the DA's office was going to be comparatively easy, she was mistaken. Time and again I've called her for non-controversial public information and she has told me that she is under orders not to answer my questions. According to Emard, Schroeder demands that all calls from the Weekly be directed to her. Schroeder, of course, ignores us.

(The ban on Weekly reporters was apparently recently extended to the Times' Stuart Pfeifer, who, after years of polishing the DA's image, finally cut loose March 12 with a terrifying piece on Rackauckas' relationship with Di Carlo—a story first reported in the Weekly fully two years before.)

One DA employee—not Emard—who is familiar with the situation said personal animosity determines Schroeder's handling of reporters. "Susan hates the Weekly and dreams of getting you guys for what you have written about her and Tony," the source said.

Perhaps Schroeder is still angry that I disclosed in a March 21 article that she billed taxpayers $261 for an opulent hotel room in San Francisco in June 2000. Or it could have been our report that the DA uses public funds to rent videos when he stays in out-of-town hotels. Or the Weekly's finding that the DA's bungling of the Arco case cost Orange County taxpayers at least $40 million.

Asked to comment about her inability to do her job, Emard's response was candid—and revealing of the strained, fearful atmosphere inside the DA's office: "I wish I could talk to you," she said. "But I'm in a very difficult position politically. There is no formal media-relations policy in effect at the DA's office that prohibits me from communicating with OC Weekly or the LA Times, for that matter. And I certainly was not told about—and never would have agreed to—a policy that would prohibit me from talking to any reporters prior to my accepting this position. But the truth of the matter is I am afraid that I will be punished or even fired if I talk to you."

On Tuesday, Rackauckas called Emard into his office and fired her.

Want to know what is more frightening? Earlier this month, Rackauckas threatened county supervisors, saying he'd fire 35 prosecutors and detectives if they didn't raise his agency's budget. They caved. Meanwhile, he's spending more than $17,000 every month on PR to tout himself as a competent DA, an ethical man and a conservative Republican. Think about that expensive makeover the next time you pay a tax; there's your money at work.

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