Out of His Skull

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

Later that summer, TR might reasonably have seen hope for a rise in his political stock. The brutal abduction, rape and murder of Samantha Runnion, a five-year-old Stanton girl, was precisely the kind of moment when tough prosecutors usually shine.

"It was known in the office that [the Runnion case] was going to be [TR's] saving grace, to save him from all his negative publicity," said Payne, the former prosecutor.

Instead, TR watched while CNN's Larry King hailed Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona—TR's easy-going, articulate competitor for public attention and the guy who nabbed Runnion's alleged killer—as a "genuine American hero." Republican campaign strategists immediately touted Carona as a possible statewide running mate for Arnold Schwarzenegger. The two men posed together for pictures. Even President George W. Bush took time during an unrelated White House ceremony to praise the sheriff.

TR, meanwhile, botched his interviews, appearing arrogant one minute and positively inarticulate the next. On the CBS Early Show, TR fumbled a simple question about whether he would seek the death penalty for Runnion's alleged killer, Alejandro Avila. "You know, I—I'd like to explain," the DA said. "I mean, this is a horrendous case. This is—it's a—it's a—it's a very, very destructive kind of crime." Reviews of the DA's performance were bleak. There was no talk of higher office, no celebrity match-ups and no glowing editorials. In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, a local citizen summed up one view, calling TR weak and concluding that "it is really unfortunate" that he was a prosecutor on the important Runnion case.

The DA responded to the snubs by blaming someone else. He forced the resignation of Tori Richards, his loyal, $72,000-a-year media relations director. Determined to win favorable publicity, TR hired a new press secretary, the veteran public relations specialist Michelle Emard, and looked for his next opportunity.

***

Opportunity arrived that fall, but it was hatched in the summer of disappointment. Back then, Deputy DA Michelle Lyman, an environmental law expert, was pushing toward the courthouse one of the biggest legal cases ever to shape up in Orange County. Lyman was pressing her suit against a number of oil companies—most notably ARCO—for dangerous leaks of the fuel additive MTBE. Suddenly TR showed up, shoved Lyman aside, and offered ARCO a deal that was pennies on the kinds of dollars Lyman had been talking about.

Lyman was furious and quit in protest, and now it's easy to see why. In a similar 1998 MTBE case, officials in South Lake Tahoe accepted $69 million to settle oil-company violations. But TR rolled over. Despite years of knowingly polluting Orange County's soil, threatening the invaluable local groundwater supply and refusing necessary cleanup efforts, the oil companies persuaded the DA that something more modest was in order. TR finally accepted $5 million for litigation costs and another $3 million for cleanup consultants. He refused to make them pay even $1 in civil penalties for their crimes. The deal was so lousy that, five months later, Orange County water officials filed another MTBE cleanup suit against the oil companies.

Following the grand jury report, the AG's investigation and the Runnion case, the ARCO settlement should have been whatever comes after your third strike. Instead, and here's what's interesting, TR succeeded against all odds in transforming the ARCO case into a victory. And not just a victory, but also something like a legal landmark—the Constitution, Plessy vs. Ferguson, Brown vs. Board of Education and TR vs. ARCO.

On Dec. 17, 2002, TR drove to his ARCO press conference at Islands Golf Center in Anaheim. He hadn't taken any chances with the event. According to DA documents, at least five DA employees, including three highly paid prosecutors tasked for the spectacle, spent dozens of hours in prep time. And it was like God—the nice God—was on TR's side. It had been pouring biblically that morning, but by the time TR arrived at Islands, the rain clouds had Brillo-padded the sky of dirt, leaving it an eye-numbing blue. There were TV cameras, a few print reporters and about 30 county employees in an arc behind the DA. He'd been waiting for this moment of glory for six months. He wasn't going to be modest.


(Left to Right)
Susan & Michael Schroeder with
TR on election night, 2002

Reading from a simply worded six-page script, TR told the reporters—and remember that these guys were outnumbered almost 5-1 by TR supporters; they were lonely, really—that he'd risen "to the occasion" and accepted "the challenge" to (and this part was highlighted in his speech with six asterisks for emphasis) "protect and preserve the supply of drinking water in Orange County for present and future generations." TR then announced that the four-year-old MTBE pollution case against ARCO and Thrifty gas stations—one of the "most important and complex environmental cases in the nation," he said—had been settled out of court for $8 million. The DA staffers and county bureaucrats he'd handpicked to attend applauded on cue.

Press coverage of the settlement was sensational—if you were Tony Rackauckas. KFI-AM, KFWB-AM, KCBS-TV and Fox 11 News ran stories portraying the DA as a tough and wise prosecutor as well as an environmental champion. The Register published three glowing articles on Dec. 17 and 18. In one, reporter Larry Welborn editorialized that TR's work "could be the model for other counties." The Times' headline could have been written by the DA himself: "O.C. Wins Big Money Pledge From Arco to Clean Up MTBE." A Times editorial concluded, "District Attorney Tony Rackauckas should be applauded."

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