Out of His Skull

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

How the ARCO case went from just one more political disaster for the DA to a kind of legal Mount Rushmore is a story we told you a few weeks ago. If you weren't reading carefully, let me remind you that Emard, the DA's official spokesperson, told us that TR turned the Titanic of ARCO into the climbing of Everest by funneling details of the story to a paper he knew would write his kind of story: your Orange County Register.

But now, thanks to internal DA documents reviewed by the Weekly, we know more—much more—about the DA's campaign to make his sucker's deal look like the Louisiana Purchase.

***

The DA's battle plan regarding ARCO involved a simple three-pronged approach to the county's three largest newspapers: keep Times editors nervously in check by challenging the integrity of a key reporter; block OC Weekly's access to critical documents in the ARCO case; and, finally, funnel those same documents to the Register's Welborn anticipating that he'd write a story that was 100 percent press release.

And—this is important—TR was doing all this in a very specific context. Daily newspapers are…well, daily, of course, which means that reporters are cranking out several stories a week, just beating the hell out of their keyboards to produce at least some minimum number of stories (at the Reg, they call this Rule 140—140 stories every year). Now, any good postmodernist will tell you that there's a difference between writing and actual authorship—monkeys can do the former but not the latter. And, sadly, most reporters are simian in this regard: they're working so Saturn-plant fast, relying often on what you might call pre-assembly—i.e., phrases and quotes and actual editorial commentary made for them by someone else. They are not skeptics in this process, not most of them, but willful participants in a system designed to convey ideas from powerful people into the marketplace without interruption.

That, as the philosopher said, was "the listening" into which TR was speaking: a group of largely overworked, gullible, credulous, obsequious people ready to take what the powerful DA told them on Dec. 17 and rush it, mostly unchecked, into the next morning's paper. Of the six or so reporters facing this Wild West movie collection of Indians on a hill—the DA, of course; several staffers; his PR team; lawyers working on the ARCO case; other colorful bureaucrats (including firemen)—of those reporters facing those Indians on an insanely complex environmental issue involving petrochemicals, the movement of underground sources of water, etc., there were, Emard figures, but two or three questions, and those of such a weeknight, corporate-softball-league variety that TR had to know right then that he'd sold these typing chimps on his genius, courage and 100 percent Americanism.

"There were definitely no tough questions [at the press conference]," Emard told the Weekly. "Everyone just accepted what they were told about what a great deal the settlement was for Orange County."

***

Start with the Times. During the first three and a half years of his tenure as DA, Rackauckas enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with Times reporters. When TR faced prosecutor Wally Wade in a March 2002 rematch for the DA's job, it was Times reporter Stuart Pfeifer who saved the day—orchestrating a surprise campaign endorsement from DeWayne McKinney, a man whom Rackauckas had wrongly sent to prison for 19 years. Following Pfeifer's exclusive, front-page Sunday edition story on their Hallmark greeting-card moment—TR smiling and shaking hands with a guy he'd basically screwed—Times columnist Dana Parsons declared TR victorious in an election more than a month away.

But relations turned nasty by September 2002. By then, Pfeifer's coverage had become more critical. (Pfeifer declined to comment for this story.) TR directed deputy DA Susan Schroeder to tell Pfeifer's editors at the Times, Shelby Grad and Jack Robinson, to reprimand Pfeifer or watch him join me on the DA's enemies list.

Keeping the Times off balance was brilliant because it was so simple: Times editors are squeamish about charges they might harbor opinions—not just unsavory opinions, but any opinions. And as Pfeifer's generous ARCO coverage in the Times suggests, TR played on that sensitivity beautifully.

***

Equally beautiful was TR's skillful deflection of the Weekly. But that story, as internal DA documents show, is woven into the fabric of his handling of the Reg. On Dec. 6, I contacted the DA's office to ask about the status of the MTBE case. I was stonewalled. We learned later that the DA had barred his staff from cooperating with the Weekly on anything. None of TR's employees ever told me no, we won't help you. They were never that straightforward. They simply refused to return my calls.

On Dec. 10, I contacted Pat Markley, public information officer at the Orange County Health Care Agency, the people responsible for monitoring MTBE violations. I asked Markley to explain how her agency handles MTBE cases and for a list of contaminated locations and levels. She said she would collect the information and get back to me shortly.

Documents show that within two minutes of my call, Markley sent an urgent, high-priority "HELP!" e-mail to 12 other county officials.

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