Nothin to See Here, Folks!
After months of headlines and citizen complaints about weird politics in Huntington Beach, District Attorney Anthony Rackauckas announced July 20 that his office would investigate charges that HB Mayor Dave Garofalo has profited from office.
You'd think that Garofalo's critics would be cheering. You'd be wrong.
"We would rather not have Rackauckas investigate this," said Debbie Cook, a Huntington Beach City Council candidate and Garofalo critic. "We think it would be better for the state attorney general to look at him."
Cook isn't alone. Other political watchers agreed that Rackauckas has all but dismantled the Felony Projects Unit, the office that handles allegations of political wrongdoing. They say that leaves open the possibility that the DA's Garofalo investigation will be incomplete or, worse, a whitewash.
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Rackauckas first revealed his intention to curb political investigations during his 1998 campaign for the office he now occupies. Speaking before largely Republican audiences, Rackauckas promised to end the prosecution of what he called "ticky-tacky" political-corruption cases. Under his predecessor, Republican Mike Capizzi, the DA's office investigated many cases involving high-profile Republican officials, most notably 67th District Assemblyman Scott Baugh.
Individuals familiar with the Orange County DA's office told the Weekly that it was clear Rackauckas has made good on his promise to limit his office's political investigations. They said Rackauckas has overturned the office entirely, replacing veteran political-investigation attorneys with attorneys completely inexperienced in the art of prosecuting political cases.
Not so, said the DA's spokeswoman. "There have been no sweeping changes to that office," said spokeswoman Tori Richards, who quickly vetoed the Weekly's request for an interview with Rackauckas. Richards conceded that "Tony brought in different assistants—that's his prerogative. He has every right to appoint the managers he wants."
Regarding his campaign pledge to leash in corruptions investigators, Richards said Rackauckas only promised that his office "wouldn't handle political cases that were better handled by the Fair Political Practices Commission. He doesn't want his staff looking at misdemeanors. Capizzi had six people looking at Baugh—that's a whole unit."
Rackauckas as a mere efficiency expert? You decide:
At the end of the Capizzi regime, the previously named Special Assignments office included nine full-time attorneys, none with less than a Deputy 4 rating (the status ratings run 1 to 5, with 5 denoting the most experience). Three of the attorneys were also experienced in handling political-corruption investigations and prosecutions.
That changed after Rackauckas took over in January 1999. The office dropped to six full-time and two part-time attorneys. Just three members of the old unit remain today, not one of whom had handled political-corruption cases under Capizzi. Experienced political-corruption attorneys under Capizzi were transferred out—one was assigned to handle insurance cases; one was promoted to head the DA's homicide unit; a third left Orange County entirely. Two of the replacements had lower Deputy 3 ratings. No one in the office today prosecuted or investigated political cases before moving into the unit.
It may be only coincidental that Douglas Woodsmall—the new unit supervisor—was one of nearly 60 deputy DAs who exclusively donated money to Rackauckas' 1998 campaign. Among 60 deputy DAs who gave Rackauckas contributions, Woodsmall gave his future boss a whopping $825, campaign documents show.
The Garofalo probe is a big test for Rackauckas. It's well-known that he and Garofalo move in the same right-wing political circles —Rackauckas even took time out of his busy schedule to attend Garofalo's garish Dec. 6, 1999, mayoral coronation.
Under Rackauckas' predecessor, Capizzi, the unit prosecuted such high-profile elected officials as Fourth District Supervisor Don Roth, Costa Mesa Councilman Orville Amburgey and Brea Councilman Wayne Wedin. Capizzi won no convictions in those cases, but all three officials resigned early. Garofalo is Rackauckas' first high-profile case involving an elected official.
"I had excellent responses from Capizzi's office," said Shirley Grindle, a longtime government observer and author of the county's TINCUP campaign-reform laws. "I trusted them, and they trusted me. If I asked them to look into someone, they may not have gotten back to me for six months, but they definitely looked into it."
Now Grindle says things are different. "Under Capizzi, the district attorney's office was apolitical," she said. "Under Rackauckas, it's been nothing but political. This county will rue the day Rackauckas was elected."
Central to the unit's Garofalo allegation will be the $60,000 profit he may have made by selling a Seacliff house he owned for just 24 hours—a story first reported by the Weekly (see "House of the Rising Sum," April 28). Garofalo says the $60,000 reflects the cost of upgrades to the house. If indicted and convicted of violating the state anti-corruption law, Garofalo could face stiff fines, jail time and a lifetime ban from holding public office.
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