Out of His Skull

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

At 11:26 a.m. on Dec. 17—an hour and a half before the press conference—Rackauckas's office e-mailed two quotes for Pfingst to give reporters as his own:

• "I commend the work of the Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and his team for their tireless work on this unprecedented case. His unwavering commitment to the cause of environmental protection shows true leadership."

• "This litigation sets a new standard for the prosecution of civil cases by the office of a district attorney. It sends the message that protecting the health and safety of our communities includes taking swift action to crack down on environmental offenses."

Ten minutes later, Pursell replied: "The first quote is fine as is. Regarding the second, how about, 'This litigation exceeds the highest standard for the prosecution of environmental cases by the office of any district attorney'?"

Having cobbled together the San Diego DA's quotes, the OCDA's office went the extra mile for Welborn: they sent him Pfingst's phone number.

Did Welborn have a relationship with the DA's office that traded sympathetic coverage of the DA in return for easy access? Welborn insists he did not. "I have never received special access from anyone in exchange for favorable slants to stories," he said. "It did not happen. It would never happen. To report that allegation in your newspaper would be untruthful."

Welborn says he received information and a briefing on the MTBE case in advance because "we could be trusted . . . because we work hard at being accurate, fair and objective. I assume that other reporters—who are also fair and objective—could have received a similar briefing had they asked."

But if Welborn is right—if he never promised the DA generous coverage—it's clear that's what TR got from the Reg: Welborn was the only key reporter to use Pfingst's fake quote; the only reporter to editorialize (in a Dec. 17 online story) that the ARCO settlement was a "model" for such lawsuits; and the only reporter whose articles failed to give voice to a single expert critic of the MTBE settlement. Not one.

***

You would expect government officials who participate in conspiracies to be smart enough to keep their damn mouths shut, but that wasn't the case here. One of the key players in the DA's office—TR's hammer, really—is Susan Kang Schroeder. She's a player, and not just a $100,000-a-year deputy DA whom TR has come to rely on in all media matters. That's partly because Schroeder is the wife of Michael Schroeder, and if you don't know Mike, well, shame on you. He ran the California Republican Party for years and is TR's campaign manager. But for more than a year now, Susan has skipped the prosecution work TR regards as essential to keeping us safe in mind, body and property in order to buff Tony's image. And she's savage: Emard credits her with creating TR's media enemies list.

Following their conquest of the media in the ARCO case, TR and Schroeder were ecstatic. They had neutered the Times and Register and blocked out the Weekly. "I remember Susan Schroeder gloating the day after the press conference because the Register had so much more information about the ARCO settlement than the Times," said Emard, who was fired in May and has since filed a wrongful termination suit against TR. "In fact, Susan took extreme pleasure in assisting the Register in order to punish the Times. She loved leaking information to them so they could write stories the Times knew nothing about. This made it appear as if the Register was a more competent newspaper because it had 'scooped' the Times. I would hear her on the phone with Register reporters, saying, 'Well, it's crickets over there at the Times! It looks like they missed the story again! Oh, well. Too bad.'

"To Susan, 'crickets' represented a silent void."

If it's crickets at the Times, it must be time for reflection over at Reg HQ on Grand Avenue. Before he knew of the internal DA records in the Weekly's possession, Pat Brennan, a veteran Reg reporter who shared a byline with Welborn on an ARCO settlement story, said accusations of a secret Register-Rackauckas deal were fanciful.

"I know of no such quid pro quo with the DA's office," said Brennan. "The idea sounds pretty ridiculous, frankly. That would be an enormous breach of ethics."

If Schroeder is happy merely molesting the Times—hassling its reporters, handing scoops to the Register—TR has a grander vision. In his world, there'd be no Los Angeles Times at all.

"The people of Orange County do not need the Times in order to know the District Attorney's office," he wrote in his July 11 website posting. "The size of the readership of The Orange County Register . . . dwarfs the reach of the Times. The people of Orange County already know that I have one of the best prosecutorial offices in the nation."

And can't you just hear in those words the trumpets calling candidate Rackauckas back to the starting line for Campaign 2006?

***

For past articles on Rackauckas scandals, searchOC Weekly's online archive.

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