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O.C. Prosecutor Placed on Leave; Move Irks Critics of Rackauckas

The action against maverick veteran Mike Jacobs renews claims that the district attorney's office has become politicized.

April 03, 2001|STUART PFEIFER and JERRY HICKS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A 25-year veteran Orange County prosecutor who sought a state attorney general investigation of his boss, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, was placed on administrative leave Monday and told he will be fired.

The stunning move against Mike Jacobs has fueled Rackauckas' critics, who say he has politicized the office and acted vindictively toward employees who cross him.

Rackauckas refused, through a spokesperson, to discuss Jacobs' standing in the office. County personnel officials confirmed it was a paid suspension.

Jacobs, 51, a longtime homicide prosecutor who has publicly opposed other bosses in his career, had little comment, but said he would probably make a statement Thursday.

"I haven't had a chance to review the documents I was given," Jacobs said. "When I do, I will be making a detailed statement in response."

Jacobs has hired attorney Gary Bennett, who specializes in wrongful termination cases, to represent him, sources say.

In February, Jacobs and two other attorneys from the office flew to Sacramento to ask the attorney general's office to look into a charity Rackauckas founded last year. The lawyers raised questions about whether any laws were broken when Rackauckas asked district attorney's office investigators to use sensitive criminal databases to run background checks on candidates who would become "commissioners" to the foundation by donating money. Rackauckas insists his use of the databases met state standards.

The accusation by his three employees came shortly before Rackauckas asked the attorney general to investigate whether two of his own investigators had stolen evidence related to an extortion case that involved a friend and political donor of his, Newport Beach businessman Patrick DiCarlo. Citing a conflict, Rackauckas recused his office from that extortion investigation and asked the attorney general to investigate that case as well.

That makes three investigations in Sacramento stemming from the Orange County district attorney's office. Nathan Barankin, spokesman for Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, said Monday that all three investigations are ongoing.

"We're still gathering information," Barankin said.

After his trip to talk with administrators in the attorney general's office, Jacobs said: "This isn't a personality contest. This isn't something I enjoyed doing. I did it because I thought there were clear-cut violations of law."

Jacobs was accompanied by prosecutor Joe Smith and a third prosecutor who has not been named. But Jacobs has always been among the most vocal and blunt attorneys in the office.

In 1990, Jacobs was one of the first prosecutors to publicly support James Enright, who was running against Jacobs' boss at the time, then-Dist. Atty. Michael Capizzi. During the heated campaign, Jacobs criticized Capizzi's running of the office as too dictatorial. After Enright's defeat, however, the Capizzi camp never demoted Jacobs. In fact, he finally gained favor with his new bosses for his skills as a prosecutor.

It was Jacobs who had prosecuted the oldest pending death penalty case in Orange County, William Charles Payton, convicted of the rape-murder of a 21-year-old woman at a Garden Grove tenant house. Jacobs also prosecuted Thomas Thompson in 1981, who was executed three years ago for the death of a young Laguna Beach woman.

Two years ago, still showing his maverick spirit, Jacobs supported Rackauckas, a Superior Court judge, over Wally Wade, who was one of Jacobs' superiors in the office. Jacobs quickly became a Rackauckas favorite, heading both a unit on DNA evidence and another dealing with unsolved cases.

Also, Jacobs was chosen to represent the office in the investigation of the murders of racing entrepreneur Mickey Thompson and his wife, Trudy.

Rackauckas won a lopsided election two years ago on a promise that he would reduce the bad feelings among deputies in the office over their treatment by Capizzi and his aides. One of his first moves was to appoint longtime prosecutor Devallis Rutledge as his chief assistant.

But Rutledge fell out of favor, was demoted and has since left the office. He commented Monday about the Jacobs suspension: "He's one of the most experienced and successful homicide prosecutors in the office. Losing him would be a tremendous loss for the office."

One of Orange County's top political watchdogs, Shirley Grindle, an outspoken critic of Rackauckas, said of the move: "Mike Jacobs was just doing his job. Tony Rackauckas ought to be a big-enough individual not to fire people for just doing their job. He uses his position to get rid of his critics."

Grindle added that Rackauckas has shown that "if you're a friend and political supporter of his, you get good jobs and good positions. If you're not, watch out; you're going to get the ax."

Times staff writers Rich Marosi and David Reyes contributed to this report.

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