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
Thirteen years ago, Tony Rackauckas began his first term as Orange County District Attorney with a series of breathtaking ethical lapses. Rackauckas ordered the agency's organized-crime detectives to not investigate Newport Beach businessman Patrick N. DiCarlo, his fishing buddy and campaign chairman who had suspicious contacts with East Coast mafia associates. He looked the other way when Southern California apartment-complex magnate George Argyros, one of his ultra-wealthy campaign backers, cheated thousands of low-income tenants out of their security deposits. When British Petroleum's ARCO service stations ignored for a decade clean-up notices to fix more than 132 massive gas-storage leaks throughout the county, he let the company off without admitting its guilt or paying county residents a nickel for callously polluting our environment and jeopardizing our groundwater supply.
On the other hand, Rackauckas deserves genuine applause for more recent decisions. He ignored advice from his law-enforcement brethren and arrested unnecessarily lethal Fullerton cops in the gruesome Kelly Thomas killing. He withstood pressure to downplay the felony case against three well-connected characters in the infamous Haidl Gang Rape saga and made sure the unapologetic defendants went to prison. He even authorized a historic investigation into our local detention facilities and issued a bombshell, scathing report detailing rampant jail-deputy corruption.
The point is that you can never be sure if the Good Tony or the Bad Tony will show up. That lesson was once again apparent at a Nov. 19 central committee meeting of the Orange County Republican Party. The Republican DA came to apologize for trying to help Democrat Larry Agran defeat GOP-endorsed Steven Choi in the Irvine mayoral race two weeks earlier.
As you might imagine, Rackauckas' election-eve robocall for Agran's campaign shocked and angered the county's Republican activists. They had been trying to topple the Democrat's 3-2 council majority control over Irvine for 12 frustrating years. That Agran believes a powerful, activist government—especially with him at the reins—should be the center of the community and that Republicans outnumber Democrats in the city only added to their anxiety.
Partisan politics wasn't the only motivation to knock off Agran, who is a master of looking sympathetic and grandfatherly when it suits his needs. The Chicago native created an Irvine political machine that doled out lucrative, no-bid city contracts to his personal consultants and allies. Businesses that deposited large sums of cash into his various political bank accounts won favorable city treatment. Elections were rigged to favor Agran, who put fake or decoy Republican candidates on ballots. The corruption might have outraged another district attorney, but Rackauckas let Agran roam free for a decade while alarmed citizens and journalists detailed abuse after abuse.
At the GOP meeting, the 69-year-old DA explained that he was "a bit hasty" in his decision to help Agran's campaign. In reality, Rackauckas insisted, he really didn't want him to win the race. Ponder that claim for a minute.
So far, we have two undeniable oddities: A DA who steadfastly won't investigate Agran's corruption and who, when Agran is frantically trying to keep power over Irvine and the multibillion-dollar Great Park project, tries to come to his rescue.
The situation is more puzzling when you consider that at the Nov. 19 meeting, Rackauckas unequivocally asserted he had been vigilantly watching Agran for any wrongdoing. This attempt to rewrite history is alarming. In fact, the DA has blocked repeated citizen complaints demanding the launch of a criminal grand jury probe.
Republican activist Allan Bartlett asked Rackauckas if he had any special relationship with Agran's political machine, especially Arnold Forde, the media-shy private consultant who grabbed a highly suspicious $120,000-per-month, no-bid contract for more than seven years to do publicity for a public park that still hasn't been built to spec. He adamantly denied it.
But the DA wasn't as forthcoming as he should have been. Forde and Rackauckas worked together as close political-campaign associates for as many as four years beginning in the 1980s. At the height of public cries to investigate Agran's corruption in 2004 and 2005, the two men shared a private lunch. The DA declined my request to outline what they discussed, but Rackauckas adviser Mike Schroeder described the meeting as "just social."
At the central committee meeting, Rackauckas oddly posed clueless that Forde is Agran's top consigliere. "I don't consider [Forde] an enemy or anything," the DA said in response to a question. "But I know he works for, uh, apparently for, uh, Larry Agran."
Why would Rackauckas—a lawman who claims he has been vigorously investigating Irvine corruption—pretend he wasn't sure of Forde's thoroughly documented, cozy relationship with Agran?
Was he trying to obfuscate his ties to Forde and Agran?
The DA didn't mention that in 2002, Agran and Forde came to his rescue by critically bolstering his re-election campaign against Wally Wade, a veteran, high-ranking prosecutor. Rackauckas had supported unpopular efforts of the aforementioned soiled apartment magnate Argyros to build an international airport at the mothballed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station near Irvine. Forde and Agran let the DA appear in widely distributed, pro-Great Park slate mailers (Taxfighters Voting Guide, a project of the Voter Education Project) and described him as a "vigorous" law enforcer solidly against the airport.
The affair got fishier. Neither Rackauckas nor Forde nor Agran publicly disclosed the arrangement in a timely fashion. In violation of California law, the DA waited 10 months to reveal he owed the Forde/Agran slate $25,000, mislabeled the reason for the cost and post-dated the deal by at least five months. Forde and Agran were mum for an entire year.
Fishy turned odorous. According to dozens of reviewed campaign-finance-disclosure reports housed at the Orange County Registrar of Voters and the California Secretary of State's office, Forde and Agran did another huge favor for the DA. They let him wait until December 2006—a whopping near-five years—to fully repay them for the February 2002 campaign expense.
Odorous then turned toxic. Records of alleged payments from Rackauckas to the slate mailer don't match. Forde reported he took $4,000 from the DA between Jan. 20 and March 13, 2006. Rackauckas' campaign reports show he paid just $3,000 during the period.
Between March 18 and May 20 of that year, the DA claims he gave Forde $2,000. The slate mailer records no payments for that period.
Then, Forde reported he took $3,000 from Rackauckas on June 19, an alleged transaction that never appears in the DA's disclosure filings.
Finally, Rackauckas reported in January 2007 that he paid the slate mailer $5,000 from July 1 to Dec. 31, 2006, and owed no more cash. Forde reported he received $1,000 less during the period but also said the debt was satisfied.
Innocent mistakes or not, something else happened in 2006 when the DA was in debt to Agran/Forde. I discovered a record that proves Agran violated state law on independent campaign expenditures. That document, an election mailer, was supposed to have no tie to the Irvine Democrat, but it contained Agran's handwritten editing marks as well as signature.
Simple curiosity might have driven an independent prosecutor to ask questions after the revelation. Six years and seven months have passed. Rackauckas never asked to see a copy of the smoking gun.
This column appeared in print as "The Trouble With Tony: DA Tony Rackauckas owed Larry Agran's political machine $25,000 when he said he saw no corruption in Irvine."