District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has been known to use his immense authority to grant favors to friends. Rackauckas recently all but conceded that state Senator Tom Harman, whom he endorsed for the Republican nomination to be California’s next attorney general, had used the DA’s office earlier this year in an attempt to win the potent, if deceitful, ballot designation “prosecutor.”
Pestered by reporters such as myself, Rackauckas has also acknowledged that, during his first term, he ordered his organized-crime bureau to stop investigating his fishing buddy and campaign chairman, businessman Patrick DiCarlo, and then disbanded the unit after discovering his detectives remained suspicious of DiCarlo’s ties to the East Coast underworld.
But, surprisingly, the DA’s gift to Todd Spitzer—an internship of sorts with a high government salary, big title and a golden egg at the end—might have been the most bizarre. Why? The man Rackauckas was grooming as his successor had been his enemy.
In 2004 and 2005, then-state Assemblyman Spitzer called Rackauckas OC’s most “corrupt” politician, which was saying something, given that twisted Mike Carona was then the sheriff. Spitzer also blasted Susan Kang Schroeder and her husband, Mike Schroeder, as the DA’s tainted, Machiavellian advisors. He felt so strongly anti-Rackauckas that he threatened to use his $700,000 campaign war chest to run against the DA in the 2006 election. (He ended up returning to Sacramento.)
What happened next is so improbable that if I hadn’t witnessed the transformation myself, I’d think it was the stuff of fiction. In 2008, the then-state Assemblyman ran into term limits and needed a job. Spitzer visited the Schroeders’ hillside Corona del Mar home and met with them and Rackauckas. During a conversation that lasted until 2 a.m., an emotional Spitzer, who had been Jewish, revealed his conversion to Christianity, claimed to recognize he’d been a troublemaker and asked for a chance to redeem himself.
“What can I say?” Susan Schroeder recently recalled. “I was impressed. Todd was saying that he knew he’d screwed up, that he’d become a Christian and he promised to be a better person. So, we decided to take him back. Pretty stupid, huh?”
Asked if Susan Schroeder’s depiction was accurate, Spitzer told me, “That’s all true.”
In 2009, Spitzer begin working for the folks he’d once branded as crooks. The flip-flop represented a staggering shift, one he now blames on wanting a new, non-maverick lifestyle that included being more accepted in local GOP circles, where Mike Schroeder has sway. The first time I saw him in the courthouse in his new job, I asked him if corruption in the DA’s office had vanished. He smiled and changed the subject.
But the 18-month mentoring experiment ended ugly in late August of this year, with Rackauckas, who is entering his fifth term in January, firing Spitzer. An angry Spitzer—apparently on speed dial to reporters—has resumed calling Rackauckas and the Schroeders evil. They’ve returned the favor by more than hinting that Spitzer is delusional.
In dueling, Oct. 20 Santa Ana press conferences, each side slammed the other for more than two hours each. Spitzer claimed his return to the office “was a set-up from the get-go,” a way to trick him into not using his now-$1 million war chest to challenge Rackauckas in 2010.
If that assertion were true, why had he been so naive? I asked.
He explained he’d thought the Schroeders “had changed” for the better after their friend Carona was convicted of corruption.
What did the Schroeders say or do that made him think that? “Nothing,” Spitzer replied. “I assumed it. From my perspective, it would have rocked my world. It was a misjudgment on my part.”
During his press conference, Rackauckas calmly fielded questions and described his former employee’s pre-firing actions as “inappropriate . . . not necessarily misconduct, [but] disappointing conduct” that centered on a lack of “humility.” Rackauckas gave the impression his sacked 49-year-old understudy still lacks maturity. In the DA’s HQ, stories abound of Spitzer’s arrogance, such as when he made a clerk cry or asked DA investigators to serve cocktails and clean up at a party he threw at his house.
Yet, the DA didn’t exploit countless opportunities to be cruel. Without a hint of insincerity, Rackauckas praised Spitzer’s courtroom skills, passion and law-enforcement insights. The word he used most to describe Spitzer was “disappointment.” Indeed, when one of the DA’s aides began to tell reporters an embarrassing Spitzer story, Rackauckas waved him off, saying, “No.”
Spitzer wasn’t so gracious at his event. A gifted speaker, he started off forcefully. He slammed the DA for firing him, paying for a four-member media office while furloughing frontline prosecutors, willingly putting innocent people in prison, and giving Mark Robinson, one of his campaign contributors, a lucrative and secret contract to battle Toyota.
“The corruption in OC stinks, and it’s got to stop,” he said. “From the ninth floor down [Rackauckas’ executive team occupies the 10th floor in the DA’s Santa Ana headquarters], people are tired of the way Susan, Mike and Tony play politics.”
He said deputy prosecutors are afraid to speak publicly about office shenanigans because Rackauckas’ management style is “McCarthyism ran rampant.”
But, after two hours, he inexplicably decided to attack the gathered reporters, all of whom had been respectful. He called us lazy—though we were then closing in on our fifth press-conference hour. Frank Mickadeit, a columnist with The Orange County Register, had skipped classes at Chapman University School of Law to attend. I was there, though I was supposed to be taking a day off.
I spoke up, telling Spitzer he was out of line. Incredibly, Spitzer allowed his event to deteriorate into a petty argument about how quickly his phone calls are returned, allegations that journalists who’ve detailed his claims in story after story haven’t championed him enough, and empty insinuations that reporters, including me, protect Rackauckas.
Who was he to lecture anyone? Mickadeit stood up and left. I walked out. A wire service reporter followed.
“I was wrong,” a soft-spoken Spitzer told me later. “I apologize. I shouldn’t have done it. Frankly, I was tired at that point. You know how much I respect your work—even when you are critical of me—and I didn’t intend to insult any reporter there.”
The spat amused Susan Schroeder, who coined the name “Franken-Spitzer.”
“Now, you guys know what we’ve been putting up with,” she said. “Todd can’t help but to implode. He just can’t help himself. He is his own worst enemy.”
Amid the heap of allegations, news emerged: Rackauckas and Spitzer told reporters that the thought of the other guy winning the 2014 race for district attorney is unacceptable. Each says he will run against the other.
I’m not so sure that matchup will materialize. In politics, four years is an eternity. There’s little doubt that, at this point, Rackauckas, who is in his late 60s, will hang around for as long as he can to keep the office Spitzer-free. The question is: Does Spitzer, who admits he’s often impulsive, have the patience to wait?
Or will someone else emerge and offer a fresh choice?
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
This column appeared in print as "A Tale of Two Press Conferences: Todd Spitzer shows the world exactly the kind of behavior that got him fired from the DA’s office."