From a top floor suite in the Xerox Building's perch above the 5 and 55 freeways in Santa Ana, Mike Schroeder overlooks a cluster of federal, state and local government agencies where his calls get priority. A former chairman of the California Republican Party, Schroeder is a red wine connoisseur, lawyer, world traveler, USC football fanatic, political junkie with a libertarian bent, publisher, Lakers season ticket holder, reserve sheriff's deputy and the owner of a highly profitable chiropractic insurance company. The man who shuns coffee in favor of soda and dreams of owning a Northern California winery is also the most trusted strategist for Orange County's most powerful law enforcement officials, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Mike Carona. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher is on speed dial. City councilmen, mayors, senior bureaucrats, members of state and federal legislatures—even judges, federal prosecutors, ambassadors, famous businessmen and reporters—call Schroeder for advice. Candidates running without the Republican Party's formal endorsement have been known to drop out of elections rather than face his wrath. Additional clues to his personality might be found in his vehicles: a limited-edition Turbo S Porsche and a midnight black Hummer, not the petite version.
Why should you care? Schroeder would be Orange County's most powerful unelected man if it weren't for Irvine Co. billionaire Donald Bren. Both Schroeder (through connections and chess-like maneuvering) and Bren (through an army of minions, a fat wallet and a love of winning) are master choreographers of power. And unlike Bren—shielded from controversy by a team of skilled media advisers—Schroeder isn't afraid of a messy fight; over the years, Schroeder's adversaries have found his business card clipped to their front doors the morning after they were defeated.
This may sound familiar. To terrorize the enemy, Vietnam GIs left the Ace of Spades on the bodies of killed Viet Cong. Asked about the connection, Schroeder chuckles but doesn't deny it.
Schroeder has a long list of enemies. In fact, his critics have come to utter his name with the contempt usually reserved for O.J. But is there something sinister about Schroeder and his hard-charging wife, Susan, a deputy district attorney who directs media relations for the DA's office?
We may soon find out.
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Except for the pending results of FBI probes into allegations of high-level corruption at the Carona-led sheriff's department, no story is anticipated more by insiders than an upcoming Los Angeles Times profile of the Schroeders, who live in a modest, hillside Newport Beach house overlooking Irvine. Multiple sources at the paper confirm that the story has been written and is awaiting management's decision on a publication date.
Three points are obvious from my own research: veteran Times reporter Christine Hanley has conducted a wide-ranging, in-depth investigation for more than a year; the Schroeders, who loathe Hanley, lobbied for another Times reporter, Christopher Goffard, to write the story; and though the Schroeders lost that battle, it's unclear what shocking revelations—if any—will be forthcoming.
This much is certain, however: Schroeder's many critics won't be satisfied with a story that merely depicts the couple as influential. They allege that during the last seven years the Schroeders have built a shady mini-empire by rewarding friends, punishing enemies and distilling fear in those who haven't yet taken sides. These critics also speculate that the couple uses access at both the sheriff's and DA's offices to advance nefarious personal agendas.
Though the Schroeders say the charge is absurd, senior Deputy District Attorney Debbie Lloyd has taken the unusual step of formally blocking Susan Schroeder's access to sensitive files in her prosecution of former Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo. Some sources say Lloyd, whose courtroom feats are undisputed, worries about leaks. Other DA staffers believe the move was an unnecessary, petty turf war initiated by a control-freak prosecutor.
Whatever the truth, there's not much distance between the Schroeders and Jaramillo, their dining pal before relationships fell apart. Jaramillo will face numerous felony charges including bribery at a trial next year. He believes the Schroeders helped orchestrate his indictment and are secretly running a media campaign against him through a series of leaks to The Orange County Register. It's no coincidence that Mike Schroeder replaced him as the sheriff's top confidant, he says.
But Hanley—who worked on the Schroeder profile with Ventura County Times reporter Catherine Saillant—is mum about her findings.
"It wouldn't be appropriate for me to say anything at this point," said Hanley.
If the subject is Hanley, Susan Schroeder isn't hesitant.
"You can't trust anything that Christine Hanley writes," she said.
* * *
To the amusement of some folks at the Times, the verbal sparring has helped promote the upcoming article. The Schroeders generated additional buzz earlier this year when they warned dozens of their friends, acquaintances and colleagues about Hanley's probe and asked them not to cooperate. The profile is a "retaliatory hit piece" following "a very public dispute" over unethical journalism, they say. In September, I obtained an official memo Susan Schroeder sent to prosecutors in her office. It called Hanley a "bad apple" and a "reckless" reporter who "harasses people and their families."
"You should exercise extreme caution in all contacts with her," Schroeder wrote. "She cannot be trusted to keep her word or to cover our office accurately or fairly."
TimesOC editor Steve Marble defended Hanley, calling the Schroeder memo "inappropriate" and "full of errors and misstatements." He told the Weekly, "The Times has complete confidence in [Hanley's] integrity."
The Schroeders fired back, saying that Times editors had violated a pledge that they'd block Hanley's probe. "Mr. Marble told me on several occasions that the Times will not write a profile piece about us without our participation," Susan said. "He lied to me."
Hogwash, Times officials countered. "No self-respecting newspaper would put a leash on a talented investigative reporter," said one senior Times OC employee who requested anonymity. "They're delusional."
The dispute, which has captured national media attention, turned even uglier behind the scenes in recent weeks. With one story done, Hanley apparently has resumed digging. Could additional stories follow?
"Hanley's now investigating my wedding from six and a half years ago!" said Susan Schroeder. "Can you imagine? She's trying to taint my wedding by claiming we got special favors from the sheriff's department. It's nuts. It shows how desperate she is for revenge. She's arrogant, biased and I've got a message for her."
Susan appreciates dark humor. She paused and then slowly said, "Don't screw with the bride."
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If Hanley's gotten under Susan's skin, Mike's reaction is symbolized by a shoulder shrug.
"For anyone to care about Hanley's story, it's got to have some breaking news about me," he said. "It won't. It will be an extended whine. She's probably getting her bad information from George [Jaramillo]. And besides, nobody reads the Times anyway."
Mike Schroeder is a prolific quote machine. Silent for a moment, he added, "If Hanley and the Times want to write a story that essentially says I'm this big, powerful guy, be my guest. I'm not crazy. I'd take that story every day."