Flashes of Lunacy

On Aug. 26, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas “went on the offensive” (according to the LA Times) and “fired back” (according to The Orange County Register) when he responded to the grand jury's June findings of prosecutorial incompetence, mismanagement and corruption. The dramatic characterizations of Rackauckas by both daily newspapers was as absurd as the DA's answers. Rackauckas could have called a press conference, aired his defense in radio commercials or issued a media release, but he did none of that. He quietly filed his legally mandated responses by describing himself as a hero and the 19 citizen members of the 2001-2002 grand jury as alternatively ignorant and evil. In short, the jurors' eight-month investigation was, he told the Reg, “an unfortunate waste of taxpayer resources.”

There has been a debate about Rackauckas' ethics, but all would agree he is an expert in wasting taxpayer resources. The grand jury documented numerous occasions when the DA raided the public treasury to pay outrageous booze bills and gave favors to wealthy contributors or for personal, unsavory espionage missions. Turning logic on its head, Rackauckas claimed that thwarting department investigations of his political allies—developer George Argyros and Newport Beach businessman Patrick N. DiCarlo—preventeda conflict of interest. Now, with your head already spinning, consider his explanation for the revelation that one of his staffers charged taxpayers for a three-and-a-half-hour, $100 drinking binge at two Palm Springs resort hotel bars: “intelligence gathering.”

Rackauckas' defense is shot through with flashes of lunacy. For example, he claimed “all prior administration staff were treated as valued members of the organization.” Later, in his answers, Rackauckas admitted that he secretly ordered unprecedented searches of the personal belongings and offices of those “valued members” who had not sworn political allegiance to him. Rackauckas' office spies found nothing incriminating, but he continues to insist without explanation that “there was good cause” for his paranoia.

“He has a real faculty for lying with a straight face,” former Senior Assistant DA Wally Wade told the Weekly. “That's not a good prosecutorial attribute.”

Rackauckas admits that his response to the grand jury was crafted by a committee of his supporters. It reads that way. In one section, the DA's remarks are hostile and accusatory. In the next, he is conciliatory—pretending as if the jurors had not branded him a judicial thug.

But what really seems to bug Rackauckas is that in this instance, he was unable to control the grand jury. Statutorily, the DA usually guides grand jury investigations. In this case, however, the charges were against Rackauckas himself and were so compelling that the state attorney general's office stepped in to assist jurors.

Rackauckas' response to the independence of the jury is summed up in his suggestion that he ought to have been allowed to edit the grand jury's findings. That, he claimed, would have produced “a fair and balanced” report. “Had this opportunity been granted, important information could have been added and inaccuracies corrected,” Rackauckas asserted.

The DA's lack of appreciation for the statutory independence of the grand jury is rivaled only by his willingness to play deceitful games with the truth. “The grand jury lacked the ability to express a credible opinion as to many of the areas that were covered in the report,” wrote Rackauckas. “People with information critical to the areas of inquiry or who held differing views were not called as witnesses, and the information they possessed was therefore not made available to the grand jury.”

Neither the Register nor the Times pointed out that the opposite is true. As the grand jury itself noted, Rackauckas hid from the jury two key employees who might have tried to tell his side of the story. One of those was Rackauckas' wife, deputy DA Kay Rackauckas; her ethical lapses make for some of the most engaging reading in the grand jury report. The other was deputy DA Susan Kang Schroeder, the wife of Michael Schroeder, the DA's campaign manager and a major Republican party strategist. Both went missing as soon as jurors began issuing subpoenas. Amazingly, Rackauckas told officials he did not know where to find either of them for six months. Just days after the grand jury disbanded, the two reappeared in the DA's office. One mystery remains: Why did the DA's office go to such extreme lengths to keep the pair from testifying?

Whatever the answer, the ruse worked. Both deputy prosecutors escaped testifying, and the local media continues to ignore the controversy. Christine Hanley of the Times apparently didn't even know about the scheme. Though the grand jury said its “fact-finding mission” was “hampered” by the suspicious disappearance of the prosecutors, Hanley faithfully repeated without correction Rackauckas' claim “that witnesses with information that might have countered the allegations were never called to testify.”

(Note to Hanley: in an unprecedented move reported only in the Weekly, the county CEO fired Kay Rackauckas for her failure to report for work. Susan Schroeder has fared better; when she returned to the DA's office, Rackauckas rewarded her with a promotion: media relations.)

Hanley wasn't alone in journalistic blundering. Rackauckas leaked his answers first to Larry Welborn; the Register reporter reciprocated by soft-peddling the seriousness of the grand jury findings. Neither reporter has ever bothered to tell their readers that the report documented more than 115 potential felonies committed by Rackauckas' administration. Welborn ended his story in fantasyland. He quoted Michael Schroeder without mentioning that it was Schroeder's wife who evaded testifying. “These charges were overwhelmingly rejected by the voters in March,” Schroeder declared.

Welborn let Schroeder's lie pass uncorrected. The grand jury report wasn't made public until June 26—113 days after Rackauckas won re-election. The DA's campaign featured two themes: Rackauckas' integrity and his repeated assurance that there was no grand jury investigation into prosecutorial misconduct.

This is the seventh in a series of articles based on the Orange County grand jury's findings of corruption in the district attorney's office.

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