If Los Angeles Times reporter Seema Mehta isn't the laziest reporter in Orange County, she's certainly the most compromised. In either case, her March 24 story "Public Defender Selection Snarled" assures her the title "most dangerous."
Here's the background: District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is working through a group of powerful allies to take over the rival public defender's office—a move that essentially would make Rackauckas not judge and jury in every criminal case, but something quite like it: prosecutor and defender.
"To say the least, it's not healthy for Rackauckas to have influence over the office that battles him every day in the courtroom," said a public defender's office source who requested anonymity. Another deputy public defender said Rackauckas's successful takeover would "eliminate the biggest check and balance" on a DA whom the state attorney general, the county grand jury, multiple prosecutors and at least one judge have said has a history of firing employees who call attention to his myriad ethics violations.
Rackauckas' group, which calls itself Lawyers' Committee for Public Defender Excellence, got its big break in January when Carl Holmes, the county's top public defender, left the job, named his ranking assistant, Deborah A. Kwast, as interim PD and recommended Kwast as his official successor.
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Enter Mehta. Unable to see the fog for the war, the Times reporter pipelined without question the lawyers' public-relations blitz against Kwast.
"Fearing that a backroom deal was being cut in favor of Kwast, Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange) joined a group of local attorneys to create an advisory committee urging a nationwide search for the new public defender," Mehta reported.
Note to Mehta: it's hardly a scandal for a boss to recommend a top assistant as his successor; it's done every day across the nation.
But for the Times reporter, it was easier to blame a now-powerless, retired PD for a non-existent conspiracy than ask the obvious questions and find the real scandal:
•Who are the "local attorneys" attempting to influence the PD selection? Mehta identifies only three: Spitzer, wealthy trial attorney Jennifer Keller, and former state Republican Party chairman Michael Schroeder. She ignores or downplays what the three have in common. Each has been a longtime adviser or political backer to Rackauckas, a Republican. Inexplicably, the Times reporter also fails to mention others with chummy ties to the DA: Democrat trial attorneys Wylie A. Aitken, Jack M. Early, Ruben Smith and Allan Stokke. Throughout Rackauckas' ugly ethics scandals, each has been a loyal and vigorous on-the-record supporter. •Why wouldn't Kwast make a good top public defender? The Lawyers Committee for Public Defender Excellence offers no evidence that Kwast is unfit, but it says a nationwide search is necessary. •Has the lawyers committee identified any candidates? While they talk about a bold nationwide search, the group's members have quietly circulated the name of someone close to home: deputy public defender Carol Lavacot. Ten days after Keller created the lawyers committee, Lavacot sent an e-mail to all staff in the PD's office saying, "I have been contacted by several people from outside the office asking me if I intend to be a candidate for the next public defender." Lavacot's e-mail lauded Rackauckas' committee as a "highly respected group of attorneys . . . encouraging excellence for our office." Speaking on condition of anonymity, one of her colleagues said Lavacot would be "worthless" as the agency's head. "She would be beholden to Keller's group," he said.
Lavacot—who declined to identify her supporters—said she would be a "strong and effective" PD and isn't concerned about the selection process. "Hopefully, I am not being naive here," she said, "but I have a great deal of faith in the supervisors to pick the best leader—be it me or someone else."
Despite Lavacot's optimism, observers worry about another angle Mehta blew: Do any members of Rackauckas' committee have potential personal financial interests in how the PD department is run? Absolutely. For more than a decade, trial attorneys have pushed county officials to privatize large portions of a public defender's budget now at $44 million. If that happens, many of the private defense attorneys who comprise Lawyers' Committee for Public Defender Excellence could stand to capture lucrative government contracts to defend indigents in the county.
But Keller—perhaps Rackauckas' most vociferous ally—would have you believe her group's mission isn't about helping the DA or even funneling government funds to private defense attorneys. Ironically, she says all the Rackauckas group really wants is "fairness and integrity" and "the appearance of cronyism minimized."
To any independent observer, this looks like cronyism maximized. But even maximized, such cronyism is made palatable—or worse, invisible—by the Times.
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