Tony Rackauckas' first term in office as district attorney beginning in 1999 wasn't dissimilar to Bill Clinton's initial rocky months in the White House. Both men found themselves surrounded by unfriendly forces looking to capitalize on mistakes. And Rackauckas, a novice DA, provided plenty of fodder: to be kind, management blunders and a lack of skillful communication led to open rebellion in some quarters of the DA's office. Anxiety about possible corruption grew to a fever pitch and culminated in negative media coverage as well as a series of official investigations that, while they didn't result in criminal allegations against Rackauckas, did portray him as a bumbling idiot.
We're a decade away from those days, and no one is happier than Rackauckas, who hopes that a two-minute hearing in the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse just before lunch today finally closes that ugly chapter.
A jury of six men and two women decided that Rackauckas did not illegally retaliate against Joseph P. Smith, one of the senior deputy prosecutors who revolted in those early days, by transferring him to prosecutorial Siberia: a tedious unit that collects child-support payments.
At the time, Smith didn't hide his contempt for his boss, whom he openly called "a crook."
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We don't know what jurors thought about any of the evidence because they fled the courthouse. Smith said he accepted the jury's decision and was ready to "move on with my life." Rackauckas hailed the decision as an unmitigated victory.
"Obviously, I feel good," he said in the courthouse hallway afterward. "This was an opportunity for me to explain to the court and to a jury the reasons I took all of the actions I took [transferring or firing disruptive deputies]. There were a lot of allegations, but I think this jury listened to all of the evidence, weighed it and concluded that what I told them was the truth."
Not to take anything away from Rackauckas, but it didn't hurt to have Norman J. Watkins as counsel. I've watched Watkins at work for years. He's a bamboo-pole-skinny, physically unassuming fellow (with a daily cowlick!) who has bristled at my 2007 description of him as "frail but feisty." Yet, his courtroom skills are undeniable. Once again, I marvel at his ability to bring jurors around to his position.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly