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 Yoshitake OkadaFive years into the job, one bitter controversy after another hounds Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. While the DA's critics say the trouble stems from Rackauckas' lousy ethics, his supporters insist the problem is nothing deeper than griping employees. Whatever the cause, everyone agrees on one thing: Rackauckas—a soft-spoken, often inarticulate boss—has yet to quell dissent in his ranks.
The latest pissing match involves the September promotion of deputy Susan Kang Schroeder, a top Rackauckas lieutenant who directs the DA's public-relations program. County bureaucrats declined to be specific about how much Schroeder is now paid, but they say the much-coveted promotion to grade IV prosecutor, the office's top job category, could mean more than $125,000 annually —an amount earned by some of the most venerated, veteran prosecutors in the office.
For a month, critics inside the office and out have complained privately about the move—especially in the midst of a huge office-budget crisis. They claim the promotion proves that Rackauckas rewards employees not on merit but on personal and political loyalty to him; Schroeder, for instance, is married to the DA's longtime confidant and campaign manager, Mike Schroeder. They also point out that prosecutors who criticized Rackauckas in the past were either fired or transferred to career-ending work in the child-support division of the county CEO's office.
"Rackauckas keeps bitching at the Board of Supervisors that he doesn't have enough money in his budget to prosecute criminals and then turns around and gives Schroeder a big raise," said one veteran deputy DA whose sentiment was shared by four other prosecutors who spoke on background to the Weekly. "It's very upsetting to the people here who do the hard work, play by the rules and expect to be treated fairly. She doesn't even prosecute easy misdemeanor cases. She just toots Tony's horn."
Traditionally, the only way for a deputy DA to jump from pay grade III to IV was to successfully handle difficult felony court cases, said deputies who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. They say Schroeder's daily battles haven't been against villains but against reporters. It also irks them that other deputies—perhaps those less gifted in office politics —were overlooked for raises despite their roles in key prosecutions.
DA office management concede that Schroeder's promotion was "somewhat unique" but maintain it was "definitely deserved." Schroeder's immediate boss, Doug Woodsmall—director of the DA's felony-projects unit—said complaints about the pay raise are not justified, that others have been promoted without scoring major courtroom victories, and that there is no official policy on the route a deputy must take for a promotion. Instead, Rackauckas and his senior advisers base promotions on the following criteria: the employee's attitude, courtroom skills, initiative, interpersonal skills, legal knowledge, productivity, quality of judgment, seniority and teamwork, according to Woodsmall. He provided the Weekly with an undated office memo from Rackauckas to support his claim.
"I think Susan is certainly qualified for the promotion based on what she does on a daily basis involving the press—her ability to offer media strategies on cases. She's very perceptive; she has a talent. The people who work with her believe she is helpful," Woodsmall said. "It would be unfair to tell an employee we have something important for you to do, but you can't be promoted for doing it. We have the flexibility to reward employees for their unique contributions."
It's not flexibility but hypocrisy that upsets Michelle Emard, the DA's previous formal media director until she was fired in May for alleged insubordination. On Nov. 4, she filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the county, Rackauckas, Schroeder and others in the office. Emard said Schroeder forced her to follow a policy that discriminated against news organizations that published unfavorable stories about the DA. Emard has called Schroeder's media guidance a "disaster" and the pay raise "another outrageous waste of taxpayers' money."
"How can a raise for her be justified?" asked Emard, who was paid $72,200 annually as the DA's public-relations director. "The bottom line is that Susan should not be allowed to pose as a prosecutor when it comes to her badge and paycheck and yet play the public-relations director in reality."