Little Big Saigon

Photo by Vu NguyenA committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.

—Barnett Cocks

Catch Tony Rackauckas in a moment of candor, and he's likely to admit that life as Orange County's district attorney has been a bitch. Just 32 months into office, the former superior court judge has frequently faced embarrassing questions about his ethics and competence. He's had to explain why his office jails innocent men, why he removed George Argyros' name from a civil suit his deputies filed against the wealthy Republican benefactor's apartment company, and why Rackauckas describes as a "good friend" a man his underlings say is a mobster.

Less obviously, Rackauckas has made a mess of a more mundane political chore: his attempt to build name recognition in the county's politically potent Vietnamese community.

Vietnamese-Americans have always been ardent Republicans, so the Republican DA's desire to transform them into equally ardent contributors makes sense. But Rackauckas's effort at what he calls "outreach"—funded in part by a $150,000 federal grant—has done more to embitter Vietnamese civic leaders than seduce them.

Symbolic of that failure is the DA's Vietnamese Advisory Commission (VAC). Once comprised of 39 Vietnamese-American community leaders, the five-month-old organization is now down to just 14. Nor can the DA's office settle on a community liaison. Spokeswoman Tori Richards acknowledges her office has hired and fired "several" since the inception of the program; we counted four. The latest, Thuy Linh, was canned without warning just days after the VAC formed.

"How does [Rackauckus] expect to build trust in the community if he makes a unilateral decision that was so unpopular?" asked Joseph Dovinh, a Linh supporter and VAC commissioner.

Other commissioners wonder why it took nearly a year and a half before implementing the $150,000 federal grant for the VAC.

"Why is Rackauckas doing it now? Why does he feel a need to reach out to our community?" asked a commissioner who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He keeps saying that he wants the Vietnamese community to trust the DA and the system of the United States, but he doesn't give out any real solutions."

Dovinh, a court translator and Seattle native who came to Little Saigon in 1999 to become part of the most powerful Vietnamese community outside Vietnam, says the program simply lacks Rackauckas' leadership.

"There have been a lot of good ideas kicked around," he says. But as with most committees, kicking is as far as the ideas go. Rackauckas has yet to define a purpose for the group—to identify deadlines for specific goals; to identify funding sources; and to develop a budget for the group.

Most important, Dovinh says, Rackauckas hasn't carried out much training among his own employees.

"I don't know if [his staff] has ever taken a diversity training course where they learned about the Vietnamese community," Dovinh said.

But Janet Nguyen, a commissioner and district director for Assemblyman Ken Maddox, is more positive about the outreach effort.

She claims there's no dissension in the VAC, that the latest attendance numbers are deceptive, and that Linda Le, the current Vietnamese liaison, is a suitable replacement for Thuy Linh.

"Although what happened to Thuy Linh is unfortunate, no commissioner should criticize what the DA's office did," she said. "It has nothing to do with the commission. That is Tony's priority and prerogative."

That may be the best description of the flaw in Rackauckas's Vietnamese outreach: the program has been about prerogative without policy.

"We are a very complex and diverse community," said ex-liaison Thuy Linh. "There are many factions in our community, many politics and many issues that we're still grappling with. Working with the Vietnamese community is very difficult."

Rackauckas has made that task even more arduous by promising to teach the county's 135,000 Vietnamese-Americans about the American criminal-justice system. He might want to consider turning that plan on its head and renaming the program "Vietnamese-American Inreach"—and narrow his target audience to just one student: himself.

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