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O.C. Grand Jury Accuses D.A. of Conflicts in Cases

Probe: Report says Tony Rackauckas intervened at campaign donors' requests. He 'has nothing to hide,' spokeswoman says.

June 26, 2002|STUART PFEIFER, JACK LEONARD and JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas interceded on behalf of campaign contributors in three criminal cases handled by his office, according to a grand jury report to be released today.

The cases cited by the panel include that of a domestic violence suspect Rackauckas ordered dismissed and one in which an auto burglary suspect's 16 felony charges were reduced to a single misdemeanor. In each case, Rackauckas intervened after he was contacted by a campaign contributor, the report states.

The Orange County Grand Jury also criticizes Rackauckas and his managers of using county resources for personal business. In one instance, an investigator was assigned to stake out the home of Rackauckas' adult son when his father feared he might be driving on a suspended license.

The grand jury accused Rackauckas of acting with an "appearance of impropriety" but stopped short of accusing him of criminal wrongdoing. It did recommend that he be barred from making hiring decisions because in the past he selected relatives of friends and contributors.

The county Board of Supervisors, which received the report Tuesday, hastily scheduled a special meeting for Friday to discuss the findings.

"If some of the allegations contained in this report are sustained, there could be significant fallout and significant mistrust of our criminal justice system," Supervisor Todd Spitzer said. "It's significant enough in my opinion that we need to address it as soon as possible."

The panel spent eight months probing the office after receiving complaints and letters. Aided by a deputy state attorney general, the panel issued subpoenas to current and former employees of the department to testify about allegations of misconduct.

The study represents the most serious accusations yet against Rackauckas, who has been criticized by political opponents and some employees for what they say is favoritism in cases involving friends and contributors.

A spokeswoman for Rackauckas said he would not comment until the report was officially released.

"The district attorney is under a legal obligation not to discuss this report until a grand jury makes it public. Whoever released this report ... has broken the law," spokeswoman Tori Richards said. "Mr. Rackauckas has nothing to hide and will answer questions regarding issues brought up in this report when it becomes a public document."

Rackauckas has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing. Rather, he accuses a handful of disgruntled prosecutors left over from his predecessor's administration of waging a political vendetta against him.

Up to now, Rackauckas and his supporters have characterized the grand jury's secret proceedings as part of a routine audit of the office. But the report, titled "Office of the District Attorney, an In-Depth Investigation," appears anything but routine. The report praised Rackauckas for improvements in fighting gang crime and family-support collections but also cited numerous concerns, among them:

* Rackauckas ordered his deputies to dismiss a domestic violence case after a campaign contributor arranged for him to meet with the victim, who said she had made up the allegations, the report said. The report noted that it is common for victims of domestic violence to recant and that the office's policy is to pursue charges in such cases.

* Rackauckas allegedly interceded in a second case after he was contacted by a prominent Orange County defense attorney who had contributed to his campaign. The suspect in the case was charged with 16 felonies involving a series of automobile burglaries and thefts and a school burglary.

According to the report, the campaign contributor met with Rackauckas to discuss the case and the district attorney soon assigned a senior prosecutor to take over plea negotiations. Ultimately, the defendant paid less than $2,000 in restitution and all felony charges were dismissed, the report states.

* Rackauckas got involved in a consumer-protection case against an apartment business owned by billionaire developer George Argyros, whose company donated to Rackauckas' campaign. Rackauckas took over negotiations with Argyros' company. After his actions became public, he withdrew from the case and asked the attorney general to take over.

* Rackauckas intervened in a case involving a close friend and campaign contributor, Newport Beach businessman Patrick DiCarlo. DiCarlo came to Rackauckas alleging that someone was trying to extort money from him. The district attorney ordered his organized crime investigators to look into the matter. But Rackauckas pulled the investigators off the case weeks later, saying they were treating DiCarlo more like a crime suspect than a victim. While the office was investigating DiCarlo, Rackauckas presented his friend with a handgun worth $600 as a birthday present, the report said.

* The panel also accused Rackauckas of changing office hiring policy to ensure that job candidates who were friends or relatives of a political supporter would obtain interviews.

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