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.

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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