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ORANGE COUNTY'S BANKRUPTCY: THE RAABE VERDICTS

D.A. Needed the Win--in More Ways Than One

Prosecutor: Conviction of Raabe is Capizzi's first clear victory of late. It might defuse criticism from county conservatives and help his case if he runs for state attorney general.

May 03, 1997|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This was the one Orange County Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi couldn't afford to lose.

Capizzi scored a long-sought victory Friday in convicting former County Assistant Treasurer Matthew R. Raabe on five felony counts for the fiscal meltdown that resulted in the county's December 1994 bankruptcy.

It reverses what Capizzi's enemies have characterized as an unsettling series of setbacks in the prosecution of the bankruptcy's prime perpetrators. Before the guilty verdict against Raabe, the best Capizzi had gotten was a six-count felony plea hammered out with former County Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron, who has never spent a single night in jail.

The prosecutorial scorecard is particularly important because Capizzi for months has been exploring a run for state attorney general. An acquittal of Raabe might have helped topple Capizzi's chances for higher office before his campaign ever got off the ground. The guilty verdict would seem to give his prospects a boost.

But a statewide run won't be easy.

Among conservative activists on his home turf, the Republican district attorney is himself Public Enemy No. 1 for his pursuit of Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach) and a host of GOP lieutenants for alleged campaign wrongdoing.

"Mike's not having the best of times with his county Republican Party," said Ken Khachigian, a top statewide GOP strategist. "There's a boatload of people pretty unhappy with him. They feel he went on a tear that wasn't totally justified. A lot of people feel it was because of political ambition."

Capizzi has a ready reply for that and other criticisms.

"I'm a prosecutor, not a puppet," he said Friday. "There's a handful of people in this county who want a puppet. But they're not the majority, fortunately."

Capizzi contends voters in the county are pleased with his prosecution of the bankruptcy cases and Baugh, who has denied the charges and has yet to stand trial.

And those average folks, Capizzi said, will support him in a run for attorney general.

"I think Orange County is going to be a base of support," Capizzi said. "The vigor in which we've prosecuted these cases, the even-handedness we've shown, is much appreciated by the people of Orange County. I think they recognize the integrity of this office and that it's not going to be compromised."

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Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based Republican consultant, said the prime threat to Capizzi may not be ire over the Baugh or bankruptcy cases, but a backlash over his ongoing investigation of a Latino rights organization for alleged voter fraud.

"The greatest fallout for him in a statewide race could be with Latino voters," Hoffenblum said, adding that the series of volatile, high-profile cases have created "one heck of a mess in Orange County. I'm not particularly convinced that's the best base to launch a statewide campaign."

One senior state Republican Party official said Capizzi will run for state office out of political necessity. The alternative is butting heads with Orange County's conservative kingpins, who have talked openly of putting up their own candidate for district attorney and spending whatever it takes to defeat Capizzi if he tries to retain his office.

"If he runs for reelection, he gets his rear kicked," the GOP official said. "On the other hand, if he offers his services for A.G., he saves face. He can bow out gracefully. It's the best of the potential exit strategies, as silly as it sounds."

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In the run for the GOP's attorney general nomination, Capizzi's top competition would be David Sterling, the current chief assistant to Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren. Sterling's political handlers refuse to talk strategy, but it's no secret they plan to use Capizzi's recent prosecutorial record against him.

Of the half-dozen former or current county officials Capizzi brought charges against for the bankruptcy, Raabe is the first found guilty by a jury.

Citron bargained with prosecutors and ended up serving his one-year jail sentence in a work-release program that lets him spend nights at home.

Former Budget Director Ronald S. Rubino was tried on two felony counts of helping Citron and Raabe misappropriate public funds, but a jury voted 9 to 3 in favor of acquittal.

Instead of going again to trial, prosecutors agreed to a deal that allowed Rubino to plead no contest to a single felony and get two years of unsupervised probation and 100 hours of community service. As part of the agreement, Rubino could also get his record wiped clean after a year, if he abides by the terms of his probation.

In March, a state appeals court removed Capizzi from the misconduct case against Auditor-Controller Steve E. Lewis, saying the district attorney's office had "grave" conflicts of interest. Meanwhile, the California Supreme Court rejected Capizzi's bid to reinstate misconduct charges against former Supervisor Roger R. Stanton and current Board Chairman William G. Steiner that had been thrown out by an appeals court.

Those mixed results contrast with Capizzi's past record prosecuting errant politicians and bureaucrats. In the late 1970s, Capizzi made a name for himself with some 40 corruption convictions against some of the county's elected elite, including two county supervisors and a former congressman.

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Capizzi casts a more favorable light on the results of his bankruptcy prosecutions. He said his office had no hand in the sentencing of Citron; a judge meted out the punishment. Rubino's no-contest plea, he said, was tantamount to "a finding of guilt" by the judge. Lewis still faces his day in court, even though Capizzi's office won't be handling the prosecution.

The case against the two supervisors "was viable based on the law as it stood when we filed the charges," Capizzi said. "The Court of Appeal chose to change the law. They made new law. And we don't have a crystal ball for that."

Concluded Capizzi: "We're very pleased with the results so far of our efforts."

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