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Politicians rarely keep their promises—remember George W. Bush's notorious declaration that he'd never use U.S. troops in reckless, liberal nation-building projects? But Orange Countians can celebrate District Attorney Tony Rackauckas for keeping at least one campaign pledge: that he'd go easy on political corruption.
The DA's predecessor, Michael Capizzi, incurred the wrath of the GOP establishment when he vigorously prosecuted Republican activists involved in a mid-1990s scandal during an Assembly race to elect Huntington Beach's Scott Baugh, now the party's chieftain. And so, Rackauckas told voters, he'd stay clear of political conspiracies. He's been true to his word: since his 1998 election, Rackauckas hasn't sent one corrupt politician to jail.
On Aug. 29, the U.S Attorney's office announced it had reached a deal with ex-Huntington Beach Mayor Pamela Houchen in connection with her involvement in illegal condo conversions in Surf City. Houchen agreed to plead guilty to eight counts of mail and wire fraud and pay back the people she'd ripped off. She could spend up to five years in federal prison.
First reported by OC Weekly in October 2003, Houchen's role in the scandal was investigated by the Huntington Beach police department and the FBI. Although the Weekly reported that the Republican Houchen had filed fraudulent paperwork with the county recorder, the Republican Rackauckas apparently never ordered his investigators to walk a few blocks over to that office to see if a crime had occurred.
"This office was extremely interested in the Huntington Beach condo conversion scheme as well as Councilwoman Houchen's participation, and the DA graciously allowed us to take the lead," said a gracious Andrew Stolper, the deputy U.S. attorney handling Houchen's federal prosecution.
A database search for articles containing the words "Rackauckas" and "political corruption" turned up 50 articles, almost all of them dealing with the DA's promise not to go after corrupt politicians, his keeping of that promise—and allegations of political corruption involving Rackauckas himself.
Suffice it to say that when it comes to not prosecuting corrupt Orange County politicians—or powerful people in general, including himself—Rackauckas has been more than gracious.
In February 2001, Rackauckas intervened in his office's probe of Arnel Management Company, an Orange County apartment management firm that bilked thousands of tenants of millions of dollars in unreturned security deposits. The firm's owner: George Argyros, a fellow Republican who was then the Bush administration's nominee for Spanish ambassador. Rackauckas—who had received an endorsement and a $1,000 contribution from Argyros—ordered that his pal's name be stricken from the complaint against Arnel.
The following month, Rackauckas ordered his organized crime unit to drop its investigation of Patrick Di Carlo. Di Carlo was Rackauckas' campaign contributor and a fishing buddy, but long before that the DA's office had been looking into his alleged ties to organized crime. When TR's agents refused to back off, he quietly forced them into retirement. Similar instances where Rackauckas helped steer prosecutions away from political cronies led to an investigation by Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who cleared the DA of wrongdoing—but criticized his judgment—in September 2002.
Rackauckas also decided to pass on the Orange County Catholic molestation scandal, which ultimately led to the largest settlement in church history. Some speculated that his inaction might have something to do with the fact that powerful Republican officials—including Tom Fuentes (then the party's top guy), Michael Schroeder (the DA's campaign chairman) and Rackauckas himself—are Catholics. In early 2001, the DA's office declined to file criminal charges against Michael Harris, a Catholic priest who allegedly fellated then-student Ryan DiMaria at Santa Margarita High School in the early-1990s. A few months later, Orange County Superior Court Judge Jim Gray ordered Harris, the Diocese of Orange and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to publicly apologize to DiMaria and pay $5.2 million in damages.
Rackauckas investigated but did little to prosecute former Huntington Beach Mayor Dave Garofalo, whose political demise began when the Weekly reported his nasty habit of voting to provide lucrative city contracts to his political contributors and advertisers in his local weekly newspaper. Shortly after the FBI took over that investigation in 2002, Garofalo quietly resigned from the council and pleaded guilty to one felony and 15 misdemeanor charges of political corruption. He is now banned from seeking public office.
Susan Schroeder, a spokeswoman for Rackauckas, said her boss never pledged not to go after corrupt politicians with the same zeal as his predecessor.
"He said that [political corruption] shouldn't be the first priority of the DA's office," Schroeder said. "At that point, we were the last in all the counties in California in collecting child support payments, and gang crimes and other violent crimes were way up. [Rackauckas] wanted to focus on gang and violent crime, increasing child support payment collection and also protecting the environment." Schroeder added that despite this shift in emphasis, her boss did rack up some impressive convictions. She cited Garofalo and Shawn Boyd, the Seal Beach city councilman who pleaded guilty to tax evasion and conflict of interest for voting to use city funds to purchase a local trailer park. After signing a plea agreement, Boyd was sentenced to three years of probation.
Besides Boyd, just about the only political corruption case Rackauckas has aggressively pursued involves former Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo, who was fired by Sheriff Mike Carona in March 2004 for his ties to CHG Safety Technologies Inc., a company owned by a convicted felon. DA investigators linked Carona to the scandal, and Carona refused to turn over records crucial to the probe. Still, Rackauckas publicly cleared Carona of any involvement.
While Rackauckas has failed to aggressively pursue political corruption cases, he's also aggressively refused to enforce the county's own campaign finance ordinance. According to activist Shirley Grindle, the county's one-woman campaign finance watchdog, Rackauckas "has never responded" to any of her complaints against local elected officials who violate the county's election laws.
"He is required to respond in writing and has never bothered to," Grindle said. "Of course, I don't expect Mr. Rackauckas to investigate himself, but he's one of the violators. He is just totally ignoring the county ordinance."
Grindle grew so frustrated with Rackauckas that she says she recently complained to the Orange County Grand Jury about his refusal to respond to complaints. "As we speak, Mr. Rackauckas is being asked by the grand jury to explain why he's never done anything," she said. "What this is all about is Republican Party politics. It makes me sick. I am so disgusted with what goes on in this county."