In a game of political pingpong played for years in a civil setting, a number of campaigns are upping the ante for Tuesday's primary by pushing for criminal charges against their opponents, then publicizing the investigations.
The situation is particularly heated in Orange County, where the state attorney general has responded to a record six complaints against candidates in races for sheriff and district attorney. That's as many complaints as those filed in the rest of the state combined.
"It's open season up there," said Gary Schons, a senior assistant attorney general in the agency's San Diego office.
One reason for the upsurge is that the rare convergence of dual open seats for district attorney and sheriff--something that hasn't happened for more than 30 years--has led to bitterly contested races. In addition, the district attorney can't investigate complaints involving its own office.
Since March, Schons has found himself the gatekeeper for the political complaints, amid his other duties in the office's criminal division. He has closed four investigations without taking action. Two are pending.
While most complaints statewide are dismissed without action, they nonetheless become fodder for campaign volleys, as rivals mail fliers citing the specter of a state investigation to besmirch the integrity of an opponent.
A mailer by Orange County sheriff candidate Mike Carona, for instance, told voters that state prosecutors were investigating his opponent, Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters, for soliciting campaign money from his own police officers.
Schons said he found that Walters had violated a state law, but Schons declined to prosecute because the police chief admitted his mistake and returned the contributions.
Now the chief has a leg up as the state looks into allegations from a Walters supporter that Carona, the county marshal, used one of his deputies during work hours for campaign purposes.
Walters, though, doesn't plan to trumpet the investigation in his last-minute mailings, said his campaign consultant, Eileen Padberg. Candidates typically send their heaviest mailings--and most negative attacks on opponents--in the last few days before the election, leaving no time for response.
Hyping pending investigations is a gambit played by candidates for years at the administrative level with the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which oversees campaign spending.
"These kinds of [civil] complaints have become a cottage industry," said FPPC spokesman Gary Huckaby in Sacramento. "Along with the mail, radio ads and yard signs come the complaints about wrongdoing. If they get an investigation, that's all [an opponent] needs."
But more politicians in Orange County and statewide are stepping up to the attorney general's office to seek felony charges.
"It always looks more sinister if the attorney general is looking into something, rather than the" commission, Schons said.
Since January, the state office has evaluated complaints involving contested races for district attorney and sheriff in Yuba County, as well as allegations of campaign misdeeds in district attorney races in Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. None of those complaints resulted in sanctions against the campaigns.
"These accusations almost always cast a pall over the candidate," Schons said. "The best way to alleviate the impact of our investigation is to try to resolve it as quickly as possible."
After receiving one complaint from Orange County Dist. Atty. Mike Capizzi, Schons had his top deputy send back a tartly worded letter saying the office would no longer investigate cases in which "the complaining party is not identified or available to us to interview."
Capizzi, a candidate for attorney general, had referred the anonymous complaint against Anthony J. Rackauckas, a Superior Court judge. The judge is running against Wallace J. Wade, an assistant district attorney backed by Capizzi.
The complaint claimed Rackauckas violated state law by soliciting county prosecutors and investigators for two fund-raisers. After a three-week investigation, Schons' office found no wrongdoing.
Two other complaints against Walters--that he improperly solicited sheriff's deputies and misused a Santa Ana city flier in his campaign--were closed without action.
In the pending complaint against Carona, a deputy marshal said he was yanked out of his courtroom in April so a photo of him in his patrol car could be used to illustrate a newspaper story on Carona's campaign. Carona defended the use, saying the story discussed his public role as marshal.
In the other pending complaint, Schons is looking into an accusation of impropriety on the part of Wade.