District Attorney Tony Rackauckas Picks Watchdog With Troubling Ties
Keller Rackauckas & Larson LLP: Southern California's most suspicious undeclared boutique law firm
Leslie Agan / OC Weekly
There's no doubt Stephen G. Larson—the man District Attorney Tony Rackauckas picked last year as the part-time, $300,000 watchdog of his agency in the ongoing Orange County jailhouse-informant scandal—is brilliant and possesses an impressive résumé. Larson ran the organized-crime section of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, taught constitutional law as an adjunct college professor and won a 2006 lifetime presidential federal judge appointment, only to quit after three years, declaring a desire to accumulate more personal wealth. Nowadays, he protects white-collar-criminal defendants.
Given that superior-court judges, a California Court of Appeal, law-school deans, major newspapers, legal scholars nationwide and ex-prosecutors of all political stripes have ridiculed systemic prosecution-team cheating to win cases in Orange County, Rackauckas hopes he's finally found in Larson a person who'll provide public relations cover. The DA's attempt to derail serious investigation into his malfeasance two years ago included the creation of what he hailed as the "independent" Informant Policies and Practices Evaluation Committee (IPPEC), containing two of his campaign contributors. It failed at the task; a January 2016 IPPEC report, which avoided the most serious issues in the scandal, nevertheless stated that the DA cultivates a toxic work environment in which employees fear retaliation for whistleblowing.
Rackauckas tried again six months later, telling the Orange County Board of Supervisors—his pipeline to county coffers—there was "clear and convincing evidence" Larson, born in 1964 and certainly an elite attorney, was the "only" one of the nation's 1.3 million licensed lawyers who could serve as the "independent monitor" of his office. As a check on potential hanky-panky, the county's "sole source" contract-request form contains a justification inquiry: "Please list any other sources that have been contacted and explain in detail why they cannot fulfill the [job]." The DA and Jim Tanizaki, his chief lieutenant, dodged the important process point, answering, "Mr. Larson's credentials and experience make him uniquely qualified and suited for this project."
Last August, supervisors Andrew Do (a former Rackauckas employee), Lisa Bartlett, Shawn Nelson and Michelle Steel weren't bothered by the DA's doubtful assertion and stonewalling. They voted for the pact without asking a single question. Only Supervisor Todd Spitzer objected.
Why was Rackauckas so insistent on this hire? Perhaps there's a partisan component. Like our top cop and all five of the supervisors, Larson is a conservative Republican. He's also a law partner at Larson O'Brien LLP with another ally of the DA: Hugh Hewitt, an Irvine attorney, political operative, talk-radio host and Southern California's regular GOP talking face on MSNBC.
In 2014, Larson found himself in what must have been a comfortable situation while representing Janet Nguyen, then a Rackauckas-endorsed Republican supervisor under investigation from an external complaint for her conduct as an appointed trustee of CalOptima, a county agency health-insurance program for low-income residents, seniors and people with disabilities. Nguyen voted two years earlier to pay Integrated Healthcare Holdings $750,000 days after Dan Brothman, the company's senior vice president, held a fundraiser for her in his Lemon Heights home. State law bans officials from voting to financially benefit campaign contributors for one year following donations. The DA, however, found "no criminal conflict of interest" and took the unusual step of giving Larson a handy exoneration letter while his client, who denied all wrongdoing but certainly used her CalOptima post as a campaign cha-ching machine, ran a heated race for state Senate.
A week later, Nguyen provided the winning vote in a controversial 3-2 Board of Supervisors decision that translated into a $32,000 annual salary raise for Rackauckas, according to county records.
But perhaps the most troubling behind-the-scenes connection between the 74-year-old DA and Larson is on display in an otherwise-unremarkable photograph published earlier this month. Type "Stephen Larson" and "Jennifer Keller" into the Google images online search engine, and the first picture, shot by The Sun daily newspaper in San Bernardino County, shows the two lawyers standing together in a courtroom as co-defense counsel representing Jeff Burum, a co-manager of Colonies Partners LP and who is one of the accused in a sensational public-corruption trial. The wild, pending case involves allegations of sexual affairs, blackmail, illegal narcotics, travel to China and New York City, sham political-action committees, lucrative gifts, private jet rides, and $400,000 in cash bribes to entice government officials into giving Colonies Partners $102 million in public funds.
Who is Keller? She is not only a past Rackauckas contributor, but she has also served in the leadership of his campaign committees. She publicly defended Sheriff Mike Carona after the DA vouched for his innocence in yet another ethics scandal. Shortly thereafter, the FBI and IRS Criminal Division arrested Carona, who eventually landed in federal prison for 66 months for sabotaging a federal investigation into the Orange County Sheriff's Department.
There's more. Until recently, the name on Keller's Irvine law practice was—drumroll, please—Keller Rackauckas LLP. Kay Rackauckas, the DA's ex-wife, isn't merely Keller's law partner; they are also exceptionally close friends who in recent months edited the firm's name to use Rackauckas' maiden name. It's now Keller/Anderle LLP, which brags, "WE'RE THE GIANT KILLERS. We thrive on tough cases."
In fishing for future clients, Anderle also boasts of how wealthy criminal suspects have hired her to obtain favorable outcomes with her ex-hubby, the father of her kid. "Kay's versatility as a trial attorney and skilled negotiator gives her clients a multidimensional advocate who can quickly assess their case and devise a winning strategy," the firm asserts.
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According to court records, Larson and Keller ironically accuse prosecutors in the Colonies Partners trial of the same cheating tactics that Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who allows her air units to daily harass reporters who don't routinely regurgitate her lies, have actually employed in the snitch scandal: hiding or destroying exculpatory evidence, doctoring investigations, and covering up corruption with lies.
Larson told OC Weekly he sees no potential conflict of interest advising Rackauckas in snitch scandal reform efforts.
"My firm does not find either legal or ethical conflict in serving as defense counsel to Mr. Jeffrey Burum, who has also retained Ms. Keller," he said, "Our firm's acting for Mr. Burum has been a matter of public record and has been widely reported in the press long before my appointment as monitor. The fact that Mr. Burum has retained Ms. Keller to assist in his defense has zero impact on our work in Orange County."
He added, "I do believe I am uniquely qualified for the role of monitor in this instance given my knowledge of the people and institutions involved in the matter, and my unique background as a former federal prosecutor, former federal judge, a long-time professor of civil rights laws, and a currently active private practitioner with extensive experience in criminal defense and civil rights laws."
The OC snitch controversy Larson entered centers on how law enforcement invented "capers" that violated the constitutional rights of in-custody, pretrial defendants. The Supreme Court bans government officials and their agents, including snitches, from questioning individuals who've been charged and have legal representation. Informants working for cops enticed targets into making self-incriminating statements, then testified dishonestly about their arrangement. So far, at least 15 murder and attempted-murder convictions have collapsed with the revelations. Hundreds, "if not thousands," of additional cases may have been marred, according to Scott Sanders, the assistant public defender who discovered our county's criminal-justice-system mess.
Rackauckas has insisted for more than three years that his nemesis fabricated the scandal. As you would expect, senior DA staffers dutifully repeat that embarrassing spin, including prosecutorial hothead Mark Geller, who told a reporter, "[Sanders] gets and deserves no respect."
It's undeniable who fathered that malaise: The two-faced man who says Larson is his perfect watchdog.
"You know, uh, we're not turning, uh, the district attorney's office, uh, you know, upside-down," Rackauckas said at a 2016 press conference. "I think this is, this is . . . You know, if you're, if you're driving a car and you have a big V-8 engine—you know what we're doing; we're adjusting the carburetor. We're not making big changes. We're making, these are tune ups. There's no criminal conspiracy in this office. Uh, all of us in the office know that we're not conspirators."
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