At an Oct. 9 meeting of the Orange County Rush Limbaugh Club, Assemblyman Todd Spitzer likely fired the first shot in the 2006 race for district attorney when he said there's a growing perception that incumbent Tony Rackauckas has "poisoned" trust in local law enforcement.
"The people of this county want and deserve a DA who is fair, just and above reproach," said Spitzer (R-Brea). "The average person in Orange County doesn't think the DA's office is fair anymore. We know that the DA has intervened on behalf of his friends, fouled up cases and there's been an ongoing issue of retaliation against deputies who haven't politically supported Tony Rackauckas."
The remarks at the Laguna Hills Holiday Inn weren't part of Spitzer's prepared speech on the upcoming elections, but came in response to an audience question about recent law enforcement scandals. Initially, the inquiry caught the freshman 71st Assembly District Republican off guard. "Boy," he said. "Is that question a plant by OC Weekly?" After a long pause, Spitzer said, "I guess I should be willing to say publicly what I've been saying privately."
Spitzer noted that in 2001 Rackauckas hampered a major fraud case against George Argyros, the billionaire Newport Beach real estate developer, Rackauckas contributor and now U.S. Ambassador to Spain. Spitzer said the California Attorney General's office was so suspicious of Rackauckas' conduct that they had one of the DA's own staff secretly record conversations. He also told the rapt audience that Rackauckas' handling of the infamous Haidl gang-rape case, which ended in a deadlock in June, was an embarrassment.
The DA's office issued a statement saying that Spitzer "does not know the facts" of the cases he cited and "is not in a position to judge what happened." But the assemblyman says it's Rackauckas who is clueless—especially in the Haidl case, which gained national attention.
"At first, he [Rackauckas] sought more than 50 years in prison for the defendants," said Spitzer, a former county supervisor, reserve cop, school board trustee and a deputy district attorney. "Now for the second trial, he says it's okay if the judge gives them probation? Where's his judgment? The public is confused. I'm perplexed."
(If a judge convicts them in next year's retrial, gang-rape defendants Gregory Haidl, Kyle Nachreiner and Keith Spann could serve anything from probation to 23 years in prison.)
Whatever happens in the Haidl case, Orange County is undoubtedly mired in a dizzying spat of law enforcement scandals. In addition to pending felony corruption charges against ex-Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo, there are also separate allegations of jailhouse bribery, perjury, kickbacks, illegal campaign contributions, the selling of reserve sheriff badges, the thwarting of accurate public disclosure, indecent sexual activities and the use of government property such as a police helicopter for personal use. In March, the FBI raided Jaramillo's Santa Ana office. In September, the U.S. Attorney's office subpoenaed financial records for Sheriff Mike Carona's multi-million dollar children's charity.
Spitzer had almost no criticism of Carona except to note that one of the sheriff's top advisers is Mike Schroeder. The former chairman of the California Republican Party is a longtime Rackauckas friend as well as his campaign strategist. Schroeder's wife, Susan Kang Schroeder, is the DA's media director. According to the assemblyman, the arrangement casts doubt on whether Rackauckas can independently review allegations against Carona and his department. His remarks echoed concerns raised in an Oct. 3 Orange County Register column written by ex-local Common Cause president Bill Mitchell and Senior Deputy District Attorney Jane Shade.
"The lines have been blurred, and people don't know what to make of it," said Spitzer. "I'm not articulating some big conspiracy, and I'm not in a battle with [Rackauckas], but let all of that sink in for a minute."
Susan Kang Schroeder wasn't amused by Spitzer's comments. She called him a "political opportunist who attacks people when it's helpful to him."
"Mr. Spitzer is fully aware that the California Attorney General has ruled in writing that there is no conflict of interest [involving her and her husband's roles at the DA and Sheriff's offices]," said Schroeder. "And the AG has specifically said that Tony can fairly and thoroughly investigate matters relating the to the Sheriff's Department. You have to wonder why Spitzer deliberately misled his audience."
Asked by the Weekly if he planned to run against the DA, Spitzer, who twice previously endorsed Rackauckas for DA, refused to say. "I'm not going to answer that because right now the question really isn't about me," he said. "The question is: Does Tony Rackauckas deserve a third term?"
If Spitzer's calendar is any indication, he's already running—and not just against Bea Foster, a hopeless Democrat opponent in his November Assembly race. He's scheduled three town hall meetings and attended numerous events throughout Orange County. He's privately worked on building a campaign team. He's sought advice from powerful lobbyists. He's successfully planted a number of anti-Rackauckas stories in the press. His anti-crime legislation as well as his work on the growing West Nile Virus crisis in California have earned him favorable statewide media coverage. But critics, many of whom are members of his own political party, believe Spitzer is driven solely by personal ambition. They've described his style as "ready, fire, aim." Significantly, two of his campaign committees have more than $930,000 cash on hand.
For Rackauckas, the financial picture isn't so bright. In the first six months of this year, campaign-finance-disclosure statements show he raised nothing. He's got $74,000 in campaign debt and only $2,660 cash on hand. Nevertheless, the DA isn't someone to underestimate. Twice—in 1998 and 2002—he crushed challenger Wally Wade, a veteran prosecutor. He can raise a substantial amount of money from the county's well-to-do trial lawyers and big businessmen. He enjoys support from major OC Republicans, Democrats—including Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and State Senator Joe Dunn—as well as from labor and Latino leaders. He's won praise for his efforts to reduce violent-gang crimes and increase child-support payments. Critics, some of them in law enforcement, ridicule Rackauckas for questionable ethics and poor management skills.
A Spitzer run at Rackauckas isn't guaranteed when the DA slot is up for election in June 2006. The assemblyman could decide to seek a third term or campaign for the seat currently occupied by outgoing state Senator Dick Ackerman (R-Fullerton). But if the Spitzer vs. Rackauckas match-up materializes, expect a slugfest. One prominent Republican promised a "guaranteed bloodbath like the county's never seen before."
The gloves are already off. For example, Rackauckas allies say that Spitzer requested stress leave when he served as a deputy prosecutor. They've asked, "If Todd couldn't handle the pressure working as a deputy DA, how can the public expect him to carry out the duties as Orange County's district attorney?"
Spitzer said he never took stress leave and called the allegation an "outrageous, farfetched fabrication." To prove his point, the assemblyman signed a legal waiver allowing the Weekly access to county personnel records detailing his service as a deputy DA from 1990 to 1996. The reviewed records showed no stress leave.
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Spitzer called the charge a "red herring."
"We know what happens when prosecutors abuse their powers," he said. "I encourage everyone to think deeply about what's happening to our county's criminal justice system. It's time people started to evaluate this DA. Is he consistent? Is he reliable?"
If the Limbaugh crowd was any indication, Spitzer's message could resonate. The 40 or so conservatives applauded generously at the conclusion of his presentation. Numerous people smiled broadly when they shook the assemblyman's hand. A lady sitting at my table said, "Now that was an eye opener. He certainly knows what's going on."