Out of His Skull

What do you get when you combine paranoia, ego and almost limitless power?
Answer: DA Tony Rackauckas

Illustration by Robert PokornyTony Rackauckas is the closest you get to God in local government—not the nice God who hands out benedictions, bountiful harvests and mercy, but the God whose word can book you space in a lake of fire for eternity. As the county's district attorney, he's the guy who makes the decisions that put people in jail, that send them to prison for six months, six years or life, or that get them out of jail free. But as with a lot of politicians, TR's drive for power is insatiable. And when that impulse is frustrated, it morphs by some law of Freudian psychology (I'm thinking here of the sublimation of the sex drive, but you get the picture) into something twisted and—linked to the limitless power of his office—something really, really dangerous. That's what this story is about.

Randy Payne ran headlong into the buzz saw of TR's political ambition last summer. A 10-year deputy DA with glowing personnel reviews, respected by judges, victims and their families, defense attorneys and cops on the street, Payne was the prosecutorial equivalent of a young Vincent Bugliosi. And he supported TR's first run for DA in 1998. "For all I knew, Tony was this new guy who was going to do great things," Payne told me on the phone from his new home in Salt Lake City. "Little did I know he was going to end up trying to ruin my life."

The life-ruining went like this. Early last year, Payne prosecuted James Witbaard on a molestation charge, eventually winning a conviction. Meantime, a judge let Witbaard out on bail. In April, following Witbaard's conviction, TR lieutenant Rosanne Froeberg, Payne's supervisor in the sex-crimes division, added this memo to Payne's personnel file: "You should be very proud of yourself. I certainly am. Keep up the great work!"

Then the feces hit the ventilation system. While Witbaard was on bail, it turned out, someone abducted 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart from her home 700 miles away in Utah. Witbaard turned up on and then was quickly dropped from a lengthy list of suspects. TR freaked out and unleashed a kind of chain reaction—his terror about being publicly pantsed transmitted to Chief Assistant DA Chuck Middleton, and then from Middleton to Froeberg. She called Payne in and grilled him—challenged his integrity, his smarts, his faith, his lawyerly talent.

Payne says Froeberg then asked the question that illustrates what the DA's office is all about—not about law and order, or Elizabeth Smart, or the possibility that a sex freak was on the loose, but about the remote—let's call it impossible—possibility that TR would show up on national TV news magazines as the moron who freed the guy who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart. It was about image—and image, for TR, a man who spends $17,000 of the public's money each month on a full-time PR staff—is about power.

"Do you have any idea how this could make Tony look?" Froeberg allegedly asked Payne.

"I cannot emphasize enough how concerned they are about Tony Rackacukas's image," Payne says now. "It's all about image."

TR's obsession with publicity cost Payne his job. Rackauckas suspended him for eight months. Sensing that his job in the Orange County DA's office was headed toward an ignominious end, he quit in July 2003 and moved to Utah.

"I can't work for a man who the [state] attorney general thinks is a crook," Payne said. "Fear is what runs that office. I'm glad to be out of that atmosphere."

The fear, again, is about losing face and then losing power. And now there's new evidence to support Payne, a really honorable and ideal prosecutor, the kind of guy who likes to put bad guys in prison and was, frankly, insanely good at it. It's not just Payne's word, which is solid platinum, but internal DA documents obtained by the Weekly, documents from the DA's own friends and colleagues that show how far TR was willing to go to manufacture a popularly held opinion that he is absolutely, without question, the single greatest cop/prosecutor/investigator since Eliot Ness. The documents reveal paranoia, arrogance, abuse of power and a secret alliance with the largest daily newspaper in Orange County.

***

By the time Payne was put on leave, the DA was already pretty wound up. In June 2002, the grand jury criticized Rackauckas for obvious mismanagement of the DA's office. They revealed that he'd used public funds to pay huge booze bills at private men's clubs and out-of-town resort bars; documented two cases in which he'd blocked criminal investigations into key campaign contributors; said he flouted anti-crony rules when he hired relatives of campaign supporters with poor or no experience; asked Rackauckas why he'd given a $600 Glock handgun to a longtime Newport Beach organized-crime suspect as a birthday present; and ridiculed the DA for punishing numerous whistleblower employees with demotions or suspensions. A few months later, the Times would report that the California Attorney General's office had wired one of TR's top lieutenants to spy on the DA and had come up with gold: transcripts showed that Don Blankenship, head of TR's criminal investigation division, had lied for his boss in an official AG probe.

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