There's no question private attorney Todd Spitzer is determined to become district attorney, with the weighty power to decide who is and isn't prosecuted for crimes in Orange County, a place with a population greater than 20 American states.
While Spitzer is presently campaigning for an open county supervisor seat and waiting for four-term, 69-year-old (as of next month) DA Tony Rackauckas to retire, two key questions linger: After a series of gaffes, is Spitzer ready for the top prosecutor job? And will Rackauckas chief of staff Susan Kang Schroeder, his indefatigable nemesis, thwart him?
The Schroeder/Spitzer clash might be OC's best ugly rivalry. She is from Mars, he is from Venus, and—depending on who is speaking—they both want to either be DA or control the office. With Schroeder whispering in his ear, Rackauckas cited maturity issues when he fired Spitzer from his assistant DA job in September 2010.
The aftermath of that firing was soap-opera ugly. Rackauckas and Spitzer called dueling press conferences. The DA labeled Spitzer—a former frontline prosecutor, reserve LAPD cop, KFI-AM 640 radio host, school-board member, victim's-rights advocate, state assemblyman and county supervisor—an undisciplined brat. Spitzer labeled Rackauckas and his top advisers, Newport Beach power couple Susan and Mike Schroeder, “totally unethical.”
It wasn't the first time Spitzer threw a grenade toward the trio—in October 2004, I covered a speech by then-Assemblyman Spitzer at a Rush Limbaugh Club meeting where he declared that Rackauckas and the Schroeders had “poisoned” the DA's office. “The people of this county deserve a DA who is fair, just and beyond reproach,” he said.
But four years later, Spitzer found himself facing term limits in his Sacramento post, needing a well-paying job and taking a boat ride with Rackauckas, during which—incredibly—he asked the DA if he could return to the OC district attorney's office and work as his understudy. Rackauckas, a tepid fund-raiser who knew Spitzer wanted his job in the 2010 election and had more than $1 million in a campaign war chest, said yes. That strained arrangement—a less successful deal than the present Barack Obama/Hillary Clinton marriage—survived for several years until the monumental break-up.
So, to summarize: In 2004, Rackauckas is evil, according to Spitzer. In 2008, Spitzer asks the DA to hand him a high-ranking post and become his mentor. In 2010, Rackauckas fires Spitzer and—voila!—becomes evil again.
I've featured those flip-flops in previous columns, including one titled “Will the Real Todd Spitzer Stand Up?” (Sept. 9, 2010). Little did I know that yet another eye-opening, newsworthy flip-flop was on the horizon. About two months after he was fired and angrily blasted Rackauckas and the Schroeders as personified evil, Spitzer launched secret, friendly negotiations with them.
We might not have known about this development, but in recent weeks, Mrs. Schroeder got annoyed that Spitzer was once again disparaging DA management. “If we're so corrupt, why did Todd cry for his job back?” she asked me, knowing that I would respond, “What?!”
I immediately asked Spitzer via text message if the story were true. He refused to respond in writing. We met, and he admitted he had privately sought reconciliation with the DA and the Schroeders. He also told me he had not asked for his job back, a stance he maintained for an hour until I dropped a bomb: “Susan told me she has proof that you did.”
Spitzer then told me his goal hadn't necessarily been to get his job back, but rather to seek détente on the personal animosity and solicit Rackauckas' advice on career moves.
“She told me she has a voice message you left for Tony where you were weepy and asked for your job back,” I said.
Spitzer—who is often passionate in his endeavors—admitted he left voice mail messages for the DA. He cautioned me to appreciate the circumstances at the time of the calls: He'd just celebrated his 50th birthday, was unemployed for the first time after losing his “dream job” as a prosecutor, and was worried about how he would financially provide for his family.
I again asked him if he'd asked for his job back. He paused before answering, “I might have. . . . Okay, I probably did, but it was more of a global thing with Tony—where can we go from here?”
You'll forgive me if my head is spinning.
Spitzer volunteered additional context for what, according to my calculations, is the fourth flip-flop in six years on the same subject. He said lambasting Mike Schroeder (a former chairman of the California Republican Party) and Rackauckas had been done in anger after being blindsided by his abrupt firing. Though he doesn't think they are squeaky-clean, Spitzer respects both men, cherishes their opinion and—even after all the intense hostilities and name calling—enjoys their company.
He won't say the same for Susan Kang Schroeder. In his eyes, she is the relentless, petty instigator of all the trouble between the men (See my Feb. 1 Navel Gazing post, “Todd Spitzer Prosecutes DA Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder in Titlegate”).
“But I know you met with Susan, too, at a Starbucks,” I said.
Spitzer conceded the rendezvous, claiming he was curious to explore a chance for peace. Unlike Schroeder, he says, he doesn't believe in “nonstop, take-no-prisoners” personal warfare. In his view, public employees should solve problems—not use their positions to settle personal scores.
“Here's the bottom line,” said Spitzer. “If they told me I could go back [to the DA's office] today, I'd be there in a heartbeat. I love that office—I really love it. Plenty of prosecutors have left and become defense lawyers. That's not for me. I can't do that. I'm a prosecutor at heart. It's in my blood, and I'm not going to lie: I want to be DA.”
It wasn't easy for Spitzer to come clean. He's an ambitious politician with undeniable skills, and anti-Rackauckas/anti-Schroeder forces desperately have wanted him as their unblemished warrior. To that crowd, his periodic dalliances with the Schroeders and Rackauckas understandably cause suspicion, if not outright alienation.
But Spitzer's startling admission that he'd gladly return to the Rackauckas regime he has helped to taint is also oddly freeing. He no longer has to pretend he's perfect, and he can blame a vicious, booby-trapped environment. In his mind, self-protective maneuverings—the infamous flip-flops—are necessary if he's ever going to become the excellent DA he foresees.
Afterward, I asked Schroeder to play for me Spitzer's incriminating voice-mail message to Rackauckas.
“We don't have it,” she said. “It was erased. I wanted Todd to think we'd kept it so that he'd be honest with you.”
This column appeared in print as “The Real Todd Spitzer Stands Up: Orange County's potential next district attorney makes a surprising confession.”
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.