Compromising Positions

A grand-jury foreman who refuses to investigate a politician with whom he has a financial relationship. A city attorney who says city council members may vote on a project backed by a developer with whom they have business ties.

Huntington Beach residents may find themselves beyond political cynicism as it becomes clear that something stinks at City Hall. But they may yet find it interesting to consider one more compromising relationship–the cozy political friendship between the county's top prosecutor and their own increasingly troubled mayor, Dave Garofalo.

The prosecutor is District Attorney Tony Rackaukas, a man who owes his job to the very same Republicans grooming Garofalo for a position on the county Board of Supervisors. Two years ago, casting about for a candidate who could win the county's key law-enforcement position, Republicans settled on the loyal Rackaukas. In the subsequent campaign, Rackaukas attacked his opponent, Deputy District Attorney Wally Wade, for his role in investigating Republicans involved in Huntington Beach's Scott Baugh scandal. Rackaukas was aided in his attacks on Wade by Baugh himself and by Baugh's mentor, Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. The clear message of that campaign: Rackaukas would end the DA's policy of pursuing what he called “ticky-tacky” political-corruption cases, especially when those cases involved Republicans.

Rackaukas won in a landslide, took over as DA on Jan. 4, 1999, and, 11 days later, dropped his office's pursuit of the Baugh case, leaving it up to the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) to fine Baugh. True to his word, sources in the district attorney's office say, one of his earliest acts was to purge his agency's political-corruptions [CORRUPTION?] unit. They charge that he has since filled it with what one source called “smart but basically inexperienced” newcomers “who wouldn't know political corruption if it introduced itself.”

Last December, Rackaukas turned up at Garofalo's coronation as mayor of Huntington Beach. The mayor's job in Surf City is shared among the council members, a year at a time. The succession is normally a subdued, five-minute affair marked by polite clapping and a quick change in the seating chart. Garofalo transformed it into a spectacle worthy of the main showroom at Caesar's Palace.

After taking the oath of office, Garofalo announced to the crowd, “The two most important tenets of the law–equality and justice–will be the cornerstones of my administration.”

“Administration” turned out to be the cue for a high school marching band, which wove through the packed City Council chambers playing the Beach Boys' “Surf City.” In front of the visitors' gallery, cheerleaders jumped and, well, cheered. As the minutes slowly ticked by, Garofalo–wearing a black jacket, powder-blue shirt and blood-red tie–sat in the center seat of the council dais, smiling broadly. Behind him, as part of the celebration, his tuxedoed girlfriend serenaded him and the rest of the council.

Also present at the event was the specter of political corruption. For two months, since early October 1999, the FPPC had been investigating conflict-of-interest charges concerning Garofalo, a new bank called Pacific Liberty, and a controversial plan to build a Wal-Mart on the grounds of an elementary school.

The charges had already been laid out in a series of Weekly articles: when he's not being mayor, Garofalo is a director of the new Pacific Liberty Bank. Part of the start-up capital for that bank–$100,000–came from mega-developer George Argyros. At the same time, Argyros wanted his big Wal-Mart project to pass easily through the Huntington Beach City Council, in which Garofalo happily assisted. But Garofalo failed to disclose completely his financial relationship with Argyros until 24 hours after voting last April to okay the Wal-Mart deal, and then in a manner that the FPPC is investigating on the grounds that it may not satisfy state requirements for full disclosure.

It's doubtful Rackaukas reads the Weekly. But seated up front with other honored guests at Garofalo's celebration, he might have known something of the charges from his own staff. On Oct. 1, [1999?], his office had received a citizen's complaint letter detailing them. Four days after receiving the complaint, Deputy DA Burl Estes responded that his office wouldn't be looking into the matter. As much as Estes' letter, Rackaukas' presence in the City Council chamber sent a powerful message that Garofalo had nothing to fear from the DA's office.

To this day, Rackaukas continues to accept campaign contributions from GOP heavyweights. In May 1999, his campaign cashed checks from former state Republican Party head Michael Schroeder ($800) and Allan H. Stokke, Baugh's attorney during the scandal ($300 and $125). In December of the same year, current Lincoln Club president Michael Capaldi came through for $250, as did the club's past boss, Dale Dykema. Baugh scandal figure and former Garden Grove Assemblyman Curt Pringle's consulting firm also donated $500.

“Political corruption we can't tolerate,” Rackaukas said during his 1998 campaign for the DA's office. “We can't have a situation like Chicago.”

Maybe not Chicago, but Rackaukas never said anything about Huntington Beach.

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