By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Photo by Yoshitaka OkadaIf you're among those Californians who fear that proper politics has come to an end—given the spectacle of Arnold Schwarzenegger running for governor and etc.—fear not. Here in Orange County, it's mostly politics as usual, with Republicans pounding the living bejesus out of Irvine mayor Larry Agran (a Democrat) over Great Park management while going Ray Charles blind where the Republican DA's office is concerned.
Speaking to Register editorial writer Steven Greenhut, several Republican officials said they were freaking out that Agran might try to steal the Great Park. Their evidence: Agran's plan to shift public authority over the 4,300-acre former El Toro base to a new, private corporation not subject to open-records laws. "There should be as much open disclosure as possible to assure the plan is on the up-and-up," said 5th District supervisor Tom Wilson. Third District Supervisor Bill Campbell said he "wants the park corporation to be transparent in its finances," Greenhut wrote, "to assure a fair and open bidding process and to follow open meetings and records provisions."
Greenhut's on to something important in re: Agran and public access, but it's hard to take his Republican sources seriously. For the last eight months, to give you just one reason for our atheism, these same officials and others have supported DA Tony Rackauckas' effort to bury records from a high-profile pollution lawsuit. On Aug. 5, an Orange County superior court judge finally called an end to the game, ruling that Rackauckas illegally blocked public access to spending records of a controversial $5 million consulting deal the DA made with two politically connected Newport Beach law firms.
Here's the background. Over the course of 20 years or so, gas stations around the state have been leaking the fuel additive MTBE into surrounding soil. If MTBE hits underground sources of drinking water—which are abundant in OC—we could be in for end-of-the-world trouble. So, Rackauckas sued the oil companies.
And then it got weird, fast. Rackauckas, a lifelong Republican Party loyalist, handed a lucrative MTBE pollution consulting contract to two Democrat law firms. Neither firm had environmental experience, but both had close ties to Democrat and state Attorney General Bill Lockyer—the very same Lockyer who at the time (this is November 2001) was investigating Rackauckas for countless ethical breaches in office.
Skeptical, the Weekly first asked for the law firms' billing records in December under the state's open records law. When the DA repeatedly refused to comply, we filed suit in February. With the aid of his allies on the county Board of Supervisors, Rackauckas spent tens of thousands of dollars and eight months arguing that the public had no right to inspect the billing records of this taxpayer-funded arrangement. Through attorney Alonzo Wickers IV of LA's Davis Wright Tremaine, the Weekly asserted that the financial details of a multimillion-dollar government contract should not be a secret if public officials are to be held accountable for their actions.
Rackauckas, county officials and their high-priced consultants reacted to the Weekly's suit by claiming—ironically is probably the best word—that letting the public have a look at the records would threaten "the safety of the [county's] groundwater." Deputy County Counsel Laura Knapp described the Weekly's straightforward call for public disclosure a "barrage of irrelevant, improper evidence and false truths in hopes of creating a smoke screen before the court in an effort to obtain privileged documents from the Orange County District Attorney which are exempt from public disclosure." Allan F. Davis, an attorney with Robinson, Calcagnie, Robinson—one of the private law firms awarded the MTBE contract—improbably told the court that the billing records belonged solely to his private firm, and were thus outside the authority of the public records act until the DA's office had paid all of the bills.
But Superior Court judge Richard O. Frazee Sr. was unimpressed. On Aug. 5, he ended Rackauckas's 235-day stonewall when he ruled there had never been any legal justification for blocking public inspection of the documents. He dismissed the DA's last attempt for further delay with one word: "Denied."
In addition to the untold man-hours wasted by at least four county attorneys to thwart the state's open records law, Rackauckas's illegal conduct could cost taxpayers another $39,000. That's the amount the Weekly spent in legal fees on the case. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Aug. 29.
Abusing the powers of his office to target OC Weekly and other news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, is nothing new to Rackauckas. Earlier this month, we exposed internal DA records detailing how last December prosecutors conspired to block the Weekly's access to public records, such as those regarding MTBE contamination sites, while secretly funneling the same data to Orange County Register reporter Larry Welborn. Michelle Emard, Rackauckas's former public relations director, has sworn under oath that the DA's office "punishes"—that's her word—reporters who publish "critical coverage" of Rackauckas, going so far as to maintain what Emard calls an "enemies list" of reporters.
Access to public records is a critical check on public officials. In March, the Weekly used the state's open records law to inspect almost $50,000 in expenses Rackauckas—a self-described penny-pinching political conservative—had billed to Orange County taxpayers. Not only did we learn that the DA charged the public treasury for a three-day Monterrey, Mexico, vacation with his wife, but also for $297-per-night hotel suites, numerous spa visits at San Diego and Palm Springs resorts, entertainment video rentals, valet parking and $100-plus per day luxury car leases.
Obtaining those records wasn't easy, either. The public records law requires government agencies to release requested documents within 10 days. On his expenses, the DA took more than three months to comply, illegally withheld records of more than $20,000 in expenses and—for a finishing touch—shuffled the four-inch stack of documents out of order. All that from a man who claims his top priority is to "foster trust in the criminal justice system."