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Rackauckas: Criticism Is Driven by Politics

Probe: O.C. district attorney vows to rebut a grand jury report alleging cronyism and meddling. 'None of this should undermine the public's trust,' he says.

June 27, 2002|STUART PFEIFER, JEAN O. PASCO and JACK LEONARD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas defended his performance as the county's top law enforcement officer Wednesday, dismissing a scathing grand jury report as the product of longtime political enemies.

The report, formally released Wednesday, accuses Rackauckas of political cronyism and meddling in cases that involve campaign contributors, among other transgressions. Rackauckas vowed to rebut the 130-page report's findings in detail.

"This whole thing began with a series of complaints that were politically motivated, and that's how it was driven all the way through," Rackauckas said. "If you see this in perspective, [the subject of the report] is not a big part of what we do. It was taken out of proportion based on political motivations.

"None of this should undermine the public's trust in law enforcement or the district attorney's office," he added.

Saying he was elected in 1998 "to bring far-reaching change," Rackauckas defended replacing existing top managers with his own team and cast dissent as predictable bureaucratic fallout.

He also accused the grand jury of basing its conclusions on incomplete and wrong information.

"At least some of these inaccuracies could have been avoided had the D.A.'s office had an opportunity to read and discuss a preliminary report with the grand jury in order to verify the accuracy of their findings," he said.

Rackauckas denied political allies received preferential treatment and pledged a detailed response to the grand jury's specific findings.

Few analysts believe the report carries sufficient weight to oust Rackauckas, but its findings could pose a high hurdle should Rackauckas try for state office.

The Board of Supervisors plans to take up the report in a special meeting Friday. But the district attorney is an independently elected office, and the board has little authority over it.

"As an elected official, Mr. Rackauckas is directly accountable to the public for his actions," said Supervisor Tom Wilson in a statement. "The report content can be described as very disturbing at best."

Rackauckas said he had not been asked to attend the meeting and was unsure if he would go.

"I'm certainly going to be talking to all the board members and the CEO, ... [telling them] what my impression is of the result," Rackauckas said. "We'll need to discuss the report in detail and where we go from there."

The state attorney general's office, which assisted the grand jury, has not decided whether to investigate further.

"I'm not aware of anyone having reviewed the report at length in our office," said Nathan Barankin, spokesman for the office.

Although Rackauckas has described criticism as partisan potshots, the nature of the grand jury makes it difficult to regard its findings as stones thrown by political enemies.

"They are a bunch of ordinary citizens," said Fred Smoller, chairman of Chapman University's political science department. "It's a nonpartisan group. They don't have an ax to grind."

Against a national backdrop of malfeasance by major corporations, the report's accusations that he gave special help to campaign donors could erode support for Rackauckas, Smoller said.

"The allegation that political donors get one form of justice and those who aren't get another form of justice is the sort of thing that's going to undermine citizen confidence," Smoller said. "It's an extremely serious charge."

Still, voters have notoriously short memories, and this week's scandal could fade by the next election.

"I predict that in two months, nobody is even talking about this," said Mark Petracca, chairman of UC Irvine's political science department.

Jennifer Keller, a criminal defense attorney and Rackauckas backer, described the report as a rehash of campaign issues from the March election in which Rackauckas defeated one of his deputies, Wally Wade.

"I don't have a lot of faith in this whole thing," she said. "I didn't feel that this was objective."

Rackauckas hung up his robe as a Superior Court judge in 1998 to clean up what he saw as political cronyism and questionable policies by his predecessor, Mike Capizzi.

Rackauckas handily won reelection in March despite Wade's accusations that Rackauckas had committed ethical breaches.

From his first days in office, the grand jury said, Rackauckas' purging of political opponents "set the wrong tone, which continues to the present, that loyalty to the district attorney, personally, is of prime importance."

"The report is a vindication of the prosecutors who had the courage to come forward to the grand jury and had the courage to oppose Mr. Rackauckas in the last election," Wade said.

The report describes the district attorney's office as a political minefield in which good lawyers "continue to do outstanding work in

Specifically, the report accuses Rackauckas of treating top managers inherited from Capizzi "in an intimidating and unjustifiable manner" by coercing them to retire and demoting those who would not.

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