Facing allegations of operating an illegal slush fund, Richard Nixon—Southern California’s leading contribution to the annals of political corruption—used a dog to help save his career in a televised 1952 speech. Nixon acknowledged taking one secret present—Checkers, “a little cocker spaniel”—and, pouting, said he wasn’t going to return the gift because his kids loved it. Having masterfully cast himself as caring parent and pet-lover in a single stroke, it took two decades to learn no pooch could save that man from his depravity.
Fast forward to the present, when District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is fleeing his own demons. Known nationally as the Orange County jailhouse-snitch scandal, the 27-month-old calamity exposed cracks in the sanctity of our criminal-justice system. Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders expertly detailed how prosecution teams secretly cheated to win convictions in dozens of cases. Last November, in the wake of those revelations, three dozen respected legal authorities from coast to coast began demanding a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation.
The need for external inspection rests squarely on Rackauckas. From the outset of the scandal, he abdicated moral authority at the Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA), a prosecutorial agency hovering over a population larger than 20 states. Instead of determining the extent of the problem, righting the wrongs and punishing wrongdoers on his staff, the 73-year-old DA circled the wagons.
Rackauckas’ responses to the predicament have swung from initial tepid denial to insincere semi-apology to angry denial to blame-shifting to the current stage of bitter, angry denial. The DA would have us believe thousands of pages of key exculpatory records were not purposely hidden from defense attorneys and years of violations of defendants’ constitutional rights were all accidents. At a February public forum, the DA couldn’t maintain his own ruse, essentially lobbing a Hail Mary line: Who cares what prosecutors did to put people in prison if they surmised the defendants were guilty?
Better question: What degree of horror would have appeared on our Founding Fathers’ faces if Rackauckas had made that argument in their presence?
The absurd ends-justify-the-means logic may temporarily comfort the DA’s knee-jerk, tough-on-crime supporters. But that joy must turn to shock when they learn an ugly truth. As we’ve previously reported, the DA has freed violent career criminals, including killers, to avoid proceedings that would produce additional evidence of government scams.
Dodging future PR nightmares, calls for his resignation and, so far, a DOJ probe, Rackauckas summoned his inner Nixon, dusting off the 37th president’s playbook to craft his own Checkers maneuver. On April 8, the five-term DA, supposedly a history buff, lured Los Angeles television-news camera crews to his headquarters to announce the creation of a Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) program at OCDA. With a musical backdrop of 16-year-old “Who Let The Dogs Out?” on a crackling sound system and his staffers pounding out 14 related Tweets, Rackauckas took the stage accompanied by four dogs.
“This program is paws-itively [sic] beneficial for crime victims,” he declared. “I know if I go too long, you will be hounding me to just let the dogs out! So please raise the ruff for the most special guests—our PAWS!” The DA then raised his hand in the shape of a paw; no, really.
Yet the most troubling aspect of the spectacle wasn’t the lame lines supplied no doubt by Susan Kang Schroeder, Rackauckas’ spokeswoman, a modern-day fusion of H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s cut-throat aides. It was the DA’s attempt to credit OCDA with the idea of comforting wounded individuals with dog companionship.
Here’s his summary: Deputy District Attorney Whitney Bokosky “came up with an unconventional plan” to get a young sodomy victim to talk about the crime. “She met with the boy in a park with her own two golden retrievers,” Rackauckas recounted. “The goldens had him a ‘woof,’ [and] the boy lit up.” That experience, so the story goes, led Bokosky to relay the discovery to Roseanne Froeberg, her boss in the sexual assault unit, who then helped to originate the PAWS program. To neatly wrap up this tale, the DA uttered, “Good job, Whitney!”
See DOJ and worried, fellow citizens? There’s no reason for concern about OCDA vice. The agency employs nothing but caring and creative public servants.
None of the news broadcasts or mainstream daily papers that covered the event asked why Rackauckas, who began his prosecutorial career in 1972, waited until April 2016 to make such an alleged discovery. Is it believable the pet phenomena never occurred to anyone in the agency during the first 17 years of Rackauckas’ stint as elected top prosecutor?
The cocoon encasing OCDA apparently erases history from the memories of those trapped inside. Pet therapy didn’t recently originate with Bokosky. It’s been around for 150 years. In the first half of the last century, wounded soldiers in both world wars received the treatment. Dog companionship has been provided to cancer and HIV/AIDS patients for more than 30 years. Books, college courses, seminars and national network-TV shows have featured the concept for decades.
Sadly, it appears the OCDA blunder supply box is bottomless. Four days after the pet fiasco and losing a government-tainted murder case (People v. Eric Ortiz), Rackauckas hit the PR circuit again. This time he managed to warp a no-brainer affair.
This county has successfully hosted an annual crime victims’ march and rally since 2009; marches occurred on the streets, while the grounds of the Old Red Courthouse hosted the rallies. But Rackauckas, who travels with a security entourage befitting a European king with a copious treasury, nowadays requires a pampered safe space made popular by lefty activists on college campuses. Persons wishing to attend this year’s rally had to complete OCDA registration, agree to a “code of conduct,” undergo scrutiny to determine loyalty to the DA, and then hope Schroeder would send a mandatory ticket for Hall of Administration entrance.
A OCDA notice explained, “This event is by invitation only,” which, by definition, made it a private government soiree. While staffers carried in flowers and beverages for the privileged, stern-faced, armed guards kept out at least three women, even though they’d obtained tickets. DA personnel suspected they sympathized with nearby protesters carrying handmade signs calling Rackauckas “corrupt,” mocking his alliance with killer cops who targeted unarmed minority youth and seeking his resignation.
Behind locked doors, one-way reflective glass and a wall of police, the DA—who lives in San Clemente, not far from Nixon’s post-White House refuge—read the prepared gobbledygook of a stale politician. Nobody in the select audience laughed when he said, “Orange County is and will always be the place where reform begins [in California].”
More accurately, OC is the state’s epicenter for courthouse shenanigans and, on the lighter side, inadvertent hilarity. Schroeder—believed to be eyeing a board of supervisors’ appointment as interim DA if her boss resigns—explained the event had to be private only to permit “a more intimate feel.” To punctuate the absurdity, Rackauckas barked he’d NEVER [all caps in the speech text] stop fighting for more state executions, and then his trusty PR flack allowed a musical group to perform, you can’t make this up, John Lennon’s lovey-dovey “Imagine.”
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.