Keep Your Enemies Closer
Photo by Jack GouldDuring his first term as Orange County district attorney, Tony Rackauckas attempted to launch a Nevada company with a Newport Beach family tied to organized crime; set up a private foundation that traded law-enforcement badges for large donations; hampered or killed criminal investigations into the activities of his longtime Republican pals, including former Huntington Beach Mayor Dave Garofalo and U.S. Ambassador to Spain George Argyros; awarded multimillion-dollar contracts under suspicious terms; and created a civil war within the DA's office by firing several accomplished prosecutors who were unwilling to condone their boss's ethical lapses.
Of course, Rackauckas has excuses—a few plausible, most downright silly—to explain away each of the more than half-dozen scandals that have plagued his administration. But even his erstwhile allies don't buy them. The county's frustrated deputy DA association is backing Rackauckas' opponent, acclaimed veteran prosecutor Wally Wade, in the March 5 election.
Check out Rackauckas' campaign literature, and you'll see that he thinks he's been a "tough, fair and no-nonsense" DA. However inadvertently funny that characterization might be, it raises the only real question left about Rackauckas: Is he a dishonest scoundrel or a well-intentioned fool?
For three years, I've flip-flopped on that question. During a face-to-face interview last year, the slow-talking Rackauckas looked genuinely dumbfounded that anyone might harbor reservations about his integrity. Ignoring the advice of Tori Richards, his temperamental public-relations advisor, Rackauckas even agreed to answer difficult follow-up questions about his blunders. But the DA also engaged in devious semantics. For example, he tried to decouple Argyros—a Rackauckas friend and campaign contributor—from the "systematic" illegal schemes run for years by Arnel Management Co., an apartment firm owned and operated by Argyros.
Rackauckas remained an enigma until Jan. 27. On that date, Stuart Pfeifer of the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times published his exclusive story that the DA had won the "unexpected endorsement" of DeWayne McKinney.
In the early 1980s, Rackauckas—then a hotshot young deputy DA—ignored key exculpatory evidence and dishonest police work to successfully prosecute McKinney for the murder of a Burger King employee. Rackauckas eventually admitted the case had been bad—but not before McKinney had spent 19 years in prison. There, McKinney missed the birth of his son; endured repeated physical assaults—including three stabbings; and, for months at a time, gave up daily sunshine and exercise in exchange for the relative safety of solitary confinement.
McKinney, who was freed in 2000, has every right to be angry. So it was with good reason that local observers were puzzled to see the front-page photo of McKinney shaking Rackauckas' hand and singing his praises.
The endorsement prompted Times columnist Dana Parsons to declare the DA a genius and to say the Wade-Rackauckas race was "over" more than five weeks before Election Day.
"Let's put it this way," wrote Parsons on Jan. 27. "If you can get an endorsement from a man you wrongly prosecuted for murder and for whom you sought the death penalty and who lost 19 years of his freedom, who can't you get one from?"
At a glimpse, the McKinney endorsement was a straightforward, one-day story that left the Times and Rackauckas celebrating their coups and a community full of people impressed by a seemingly uplifting tale of a beaten man's generosity.
But the Weekly has learned that the tale is not so simple—for McKinney or Rackauckas. The Times withheld information that might explain the former East LA gang member's mysterious, sudden desire to invite a major newspaper to publish a photo of the DA shaking his hand.
This is the back story that the Times omitted.
In our Feb. 15 issue, McKinney told the Weekly's Dave Wielenga ("Miracle on Civic Center Drive") that the media had misinterpreted his rapprochement with the DA.
"The spiritual aspect of all this is far more important than the political," McKinney said. Forgiving the DA was a product of the Christian faith he accepted six years ago while incarcerated.
"Each day, I ask God for forgiveness for any offense I may have committed against anyone," McKinney said. "But to receive forgiveness is not enough. In order to get forgiveness, I must give forgiveness."
But even as McKinney was sermonizing, his attorneys were working on his $10 million lawsuit against Orange police; the public defender's office; and the man who had defended McKinney for the better part of two decades, Orange County Public Defender Carl Holmes. In that lawsuit, McKinney charges that Holmes and the public defender's office inadequately defended him. McKinney charges that Holmes failed to build a case for his early release on the statements of two inmates that another man had committed the murder for which McKinney was convicted.
On Jan. 22, Holmes fought back with a bombshell revelation. In a federal court record, the county's top public defender said that a previously undisclosed lie-detector test found "clear evidence of deception" by McKinney shortly after the murder. He also undermined the validity of two felons' jailhouse statements that McKinney recently used to gain release from prison. According to Holmes, he and his investigators withheld from the DA information that showed the key statements were the result of "attempts to fabricate evidence" and of "very dubious credibility."
But for McKinney—now an audio-visual aide at UC Irvine—the most disturbing line in the Holmes report must have been this: "Mr. McKinney is still at risk."
In other words, Holmes believed prosecutors could re-file murder charges against McKinney based on the new incriminating information and the fact that two eyewitnesses still "positively identify" him as the killer.
Holmes' assertion must have been chilling to a 41-year-old man who has tasted freedom for barely a year and who believes innocent men are routinely sent to prison by callous prosecutors. The hastily arranged endorsement and photo op with the DA came just four days later.
McKinney told the Weekly's Wielenga that he knew it would "be hard for some people to understand" his endorsement of Rackauckas. He's right. There are those in the Wade camp, for example, who believe McKinney executed a textbook Machiavellian move that blocked a shortsighted Rackauckas from ever reopening the murder case based on Holmes' startling disclosures. After all, what politician would want to admit he might have freed a guilty murderer during the middle of a close election?
"Everyone has been applauding Rackauckas for orchestrating the McKinney endorsement," said one county prosecutor. "But it was DeWayne McKinney who used Rackauckas and proved he understood the old adage that you keep your friends close and your enemies closer."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.