A Fox in the Henhouse
In your typical one-party state—say, Mao's People's Republic of China—you maintain control by jailing your opponents and then torturing and/or executing them in some particularly mundane way; Mao favored severe beatings followed by years of labor punctuated by a single bullet to the head. "All power," Mao said, "grows from the barrel of a gun."
In Orange County, all power grows from the wallet of a campaign donor. It's not as sexy, it doesn't end in death, but it produces a political climate in which corruption—shady deals involving the DA and powerful developers; sex, violence and financial conspiracies inside the Sheriff's Department—blooms anew seemingly each week. Outsiders wonder why. Insiders know it has everything to do with the GOP's headlock on politics and the fecklessness of the Democratic opposition.
In Orange County, following the money—and thus the power—has fallen to a volunteer, Shirley Grindle. For decades, Grindle has meticulously documented the political contributions that have built the Orange County Republican Party into an indomitable force—one index card for every campaign contribution from every Orange County election since 1978, each card in one of the several file cabinets in a spare bedroom in Grindle's ranch house in the city of Orange.
It's easy to imagine politicians praying for fire.
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Grindle does all this voluntarily, and she's the closest thing to a government watchdog agency Orange County has ever had. So you'd think her efforts would be appreciated by Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, the man responsible for enforcing the county's campaign-finance laws.
You'd be wrong. Perhaps because he regularly violates county campaign law himself, or maybe because the others who do so are, like Rackauckas, Republicans, the DA considers Grindle a major pain in the ass.
"My beef with Rackauckas is that he will not enforce the county's campaign-finance ordinance," Grindle says. "And in my opinion, part of the reason is because it would put him in the position of going after fellow elected officials who happen to be Republican."
Rackauckas' trouble with the law started with his first run for office, in 1998. State law prohibits raising money from employees of the DA's office, but that didn't stop Rackauckas from circulating a flier among DA's office employees inviting them to a Rackauckas fund-raiser. One of those employees anonymously sent the flier to Grindle, who promptly invited Rackauckas to return the roughly $11,000 he received from his future staffers.
"I called him on his cell phone," Grindle recalls. "He went to the law library and said, 'You're absolutely right; I will return the funds immediately.'
"I felt great. He was cooperative."
But the next morning, Rackauckas called Grindle and said that Michael Schroeder, his legal adviser, had told him he didn't have to return the funds. "I asked him if he knowingly and intentionally solicited those funds from employees," Grindle says. "He said, 'Yeah, I wanted to give them the opportunity to support my candidacy.'
"My heart sank . . . [Rackauckas] went on to collect another $10,000 or $15,000 from employees."
Grindle filed a complaint with the California attorney general's office, which concluded there was no evidence Rackauckas had broken the law by specifically targeting county employees for fund-raising.
"They didn't know what an SOB he'd be," Grindle says. "But I knew. I was the only one who knew right away that he was a bad apple. But in the next election, he didn't do it again."
(Irony alert: on Nov. 15, Rackauckas announced he was probing Bill Hunt, who is running against Orange County Sheriff Michael Corona in next year's election, for a remarkably similar stunt-- soliciting funds from employees of the Sheriff's Department. A day later, the L.A. Times reported that Corona's advisor, Michael Schroeder--who also works for Rauckauckas--may have helped to cover up the fundraising.)
Instead of soliciting funds from county employees during his 2002 re-election bid, Rackauckas paid for an expensive slate-mail campaign directed by Forde Mollrich, the Republican political consulting firm. By Election Day, Rackauckas' debt totaled $38,000, including $25,000 for the slate mailers.
"Practically everybody gets their bills paid by the end of their campaign," Grindle says. "If you don't pay the bill, it becomes a contribution."
By June 2004—almost two years after the election—Rackauckas had paid off personal loans of tens of thousands of dollars to his own campaign, and he had paid two relatives of his spokesperson, Susan Kang Schroeder, who is married to Michael Schroeder. But he still hadn't paid Forde Mollrich. So Grindle complained to the attorney general's office, which forwarded the complaint to the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), which has yet to do anything.
In an interview with the Weekly, Michael Schroeder acknowledged that Rackauckas still owed Forde Mollrich $13,200, and that he had indeed paid campaign consulting fees to his sisters-in-law, Laura Lee and Christen Lee. But he denied any merit in Grindle's claim that Rackauckas broke the law.
"Shirley Grindle has a long and colorful history of filing frivolous complaints against the DA and other people she doesn't politically favor," Schroeder says. "She has filed numerous complaints, all of which have been found to be frivolous or which are still pending. She has never filed a meritorious complaint against Tony Rackauckas. She is hardly in good standing to be a political watchdog, as she was Capizzi's campaign poodle."
"Capizzi" is Mike Capizzi, Rackauckas' immediate predecessor, a man who famously investigated high-profile Republicans on political corruption charges. And Schroeder has made much of the fact that Grindle contributed $1,000—the legal limit—to Capizzi's hand-picked successor, Wally Wade, during Wade's 1998 campaign against Rackauckas. "She was offended that Rackauckas wouldn't continue that clubby relationship, so she supported Wally Wade," he says.
As the Weekly and numerous other sources have already reported, Rackauckas ran against Wade on a pledge to soft-pedal prosecutions of political corruption in Orange County. Grindle says that's why she supported Wade.
"Rackauckas made no bones about the fact that preventing political corruption was not going to be high on his list," Grindle says. "I remember him saying that—what a stupid statement. He's specifically charged under the campaign-finance ordinance with enforcing county campaign laws. That's his job."
Grindle is a gracefully aging, grandmotherly activist who realizes most people don't care about election laws, which is exactly why she's made it her personal mission to enforce them. But her filing cabinets are getting full, and Grindle is getting tired. She knows she can't keep up her work forever, and the fact that nobody else is ready to take her place worries her.
"I wonder what's going to happen when I'm gone," she says.
That's a question on the minds of many local reporters and political observers who have come to rely on Grindle. "Shirley performs an underappreciated role in Orange County because she essentially is our ethics commission," says Jean Pasco, who covers county politics for the LA Times. "Public officials don't like her because they believe she nitpicks, that she attempts to criminalize paperwork errors. But Shirley sees it more in the vein of bringing down Al Capone because he didn't file his income-tax forms."
If Rackauckas is like Al Capone, then Grindle is Eliot Ness, says Mark Petracca, head of the political science department at UC Irvine.
"Ethically, Shirley Grindle is the Mother Teresa of OC campaign-finance reform," he says. "She's like Kevin Costner's character Eliot Ness in The Untouchables—she's dogged, determined and beyond reproach. And because she's all that, she's annoying to some people. But you've got to be annoying to get anything done in campaign finance because there's an inclination to just look the other way."
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