Tony Rackauckas' Scandal Crises Spread To His Own DA Investigators
With the likes of aides Ebrahim Baytieh and Dan Wagner helping DA Tony Rackauckas navigate, what could go wrong?
Because he has encased himself in a cramped, delusional cocoon protected by competing sycophantic advisers, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas can't see that one recent week permanently guaranteed his loss of legitimacy as the guardian of justice in Orange County, a region with a population larger than 20 U.S. states. Rackauckas used a May 21 broadcast of CBS's 60 Minutes to utter easily provable lies denying law-enforcement corruption under his watch. Thirty-six hours later, a Superior Court judge launched a third round of special evidentiary hearings into systemic government cheating to win criminal convictions.
Then, at week's end, another disaster struck, as a crack formed within the four-term DA's own ranks. Tom Conklin and Abraham Santos, two well-respected veteran investigators, filed complaints—precursors to lawsuits—describing an agency plagued by adulterous affairs, petty infighting, revengeful motivations and, most alarming, ethical standards befitting a Third World banana republic. According to Conklin and his partner Santos, their refusals to participate in corruption cover-ups have made them targets of retaliatory management on the prowl for excuses to fire them.
"Both investigators Conklin and Santos have recently been subjected to adverse employment actions because of their heroic actions in protecting the citizenry against the well-known and topical violations of state and federal law of the Orange County district attorney's office," Joel W. Baruch, the Irvine-based attorney who represents the officers, told reporters upon filing the May 26 complaints. "They are both 'whistleblowers' in the strictest sense. They have placed their law-enforcement careers in jeopardy by ensuring the DA's office follows the law in protecting the constitutional and statutory rights of all of us, including defendants charged with crimes who are entitled to the presumption of innocence."
Those of you who have followed the county's ongoing jailhouse-informant scandal won't be surprised that Conklin and Santos identified senior prosecutors Dan Wagner and Ebrahim Baytieh, two members of Rackauckas' inner circle, as villains in yet three additional cases. According to Santos' complaint, his investigation of a late-2016 DUI crash caused by an intoxicated Fullerton city manager Joe Felz discovered the existence of a seedy good-ol'-boys' club. Then-Fullerton police chief Dan Hughes, now a Disneyland security officer, allowed Felz to avoid arrest by calling in a favor from Sergeant Jeff Corbett, whom he'd dispatched to the scene to "criminally obstruct justice," the complaint asserts. Corbett owed Hughes for covering up an incident of him "having sexual relations" in his police vehicle behind a business while on duty, Santos claims. When the DA investigator reported his findings to Baytieh in January, the prosecutor threatened to take the case away from him, saying, "I am friends with Chief Hughes, and we are only going to be investigating the DUI and not anything else."
Conklin and Santos allege management demonstrated its contempt for their professionalism by playing mind-numbing administrative games even when public safety was at risk. For example, the investigators believe defendant Daniel Gidanian, who'd stalked a Superior Court judge with a gun in November and December 2016, was plotting "a Sandy Hook Elementary-type shooting and suicide" this year, according to their complaints. The duo repeatedly received contradictory messages about their assignment from bosses, a ploy they say involved Baytieh.
But the most troubling matter involves Stephenson Choi Kim, a gangster featured on numerous occasions in the Weekly for his unusual in-custody exploits. Kim helped embarrass Sheriff Sandra Hutchens' department by having at least 30 sex dates with a non-inmate female and shooting a homemade porno in the public visitation area, just feet from a deputies' station. He also got the woman to use her vagina to smuggle into the jail such contraband as cigarettes, marijuana, a cellphone, food, razor blades and sex toys.
To win Kim's conviction for a 2004 murder at a Cypress restaurant, police officer Susan White hid exculpatory evidence and committed perjury, testifying that multiple witnesses positively identified the defendant as the shooter, but that audio recordings she'd made of interviews were mysteriously lost, according to court records. In fact, neither assertion was truthful. After Judge John D. Conley, a former deputy DA known for his pro-prosecution bias, refused to grant a mistrial, defense attorneys complained to the DA's office (OCDA), where Conklin received orders to investigate. He found the recordings, determined they proved White lied on the witness stand, and then alerted Wagner, who heads the agency's homicide unit. But his 2011 report, written before Kim's sentence for life without the possibility of parole, got buried.
"Conklin assumed that his completed investigation, along with all the digital audio recordings of witness statements and other records in the Susan White matter, had been turned over to defense counsel in the Kim case, pursuant to the obligations imposed on the prosecution in the Brady v. Maryland case and its progeny," Baruch wrote. "In November 2015, however, Conklin reviewed an article in the OC Weekly stating that Kim had filed an appeal for a new trial. The article did not make any mention of his investigation into the White matter, so Conklin became immediately suspicious that the OCDA had not turned over the completed investigation to the defense. He was doubly suspicious because the person handling the jailhouse-informant scandal [in which officials hid evidence and solicited perjured testimony to win at least 15 murder and attempted-murder convictions] was none other than Assistant DA Wagner.
In December 2015, Conklin advised a shoulder-shrugging Baytieh of his concerns and later confirmed with Kim's lawyers, Leonard Levine and Michael Chaney, that they'd never received his investigation report on White's conduct. "Having been caught in this constitutional due-process violation, the OCDA, acting through Wagner, in or about February 2016, concocted a scheme to make it look like the OCDA did nothing wrong and, instead, attempted to place the blame on defense counsel's purported negligence," according to Baruch.
Wagner—who has tried to explain away numerous ethical breaches in other murder cases by improvising ham-fisted, post-cheating tales that require the suspension of reality—wrote a letter to Levine and Chaney claiming he'd miraculously found their package containing Conklin's 2011 investigation report and asserting they were at fault for not retrieving it when supposedly notified five years earlier. Baruch calls the story an "effort to dupe the defense" and avoid publicity for yet another scandal.
"The fact that Conklin persisted in ensuring that the OCDA's office fulfilled its constitutional and statutory obligations to provide exculpatory evidence to the defense in the Kim case ultimately caused him to be marginalized, harassed and subjected to adverse actions by his superiors at the highest levels of the DA's office," he added. "The culture in the DA's office is one of punishing disloyalty."
Assistant DA Wagner
OC Weekly file photo
Last month, Rackauckas announced the unexpected, unexplained departure of Craig Hunter, chief of OCDA's Bureau of Investigation, and, under equally murky circumstances, that he'd placed Hunter's assistant, Lou Gutierrez, on "a leave of absence."
Hunter, a former assistant deputy chief of police in Anaheim, became ensnared two years ago in a sexting scandal after a Beverly Hills attorney discovered the DA investigator's county phone had been used during business hours to send numerous lewd messages and images to his fiancée.
At the time of the revelations, OCDA chief of staff Susan Kang Schroeder downplayed the episode as inconsequential to Hunter's job performance.
Don Blankenship, Rackauckas' first bureau chief and longtime union boss, left the job after a grand jury discovered he'd spent nearly $5,000 one year in taxpayer funds for booze at the Santa Ana Elks Lodge while supposedly performing undercover work.
In 2002, Blankenship's assistant, Michael Clesceri, quit when Rackauckas learned he'd worn a secret recording device inside OCDA for the California Attorney General's Office, which was investigating issues surrounding one of the DA's friends and the agency's Organized Crime division. The DA disbanded the unit during his first term in office. Those detectives, who had been tracking the Southern California activities of New York-based Italian Mafia families, were re-assigned to focus on non-mob crimes.
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