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Orange County

Supervisors to Meet Today on Rackauckas Allegations

Government: O.C. board will study grand jury findings but has little authority over the office.

June 28, 2002|JEAN O. PASCO and STUART PFEIFER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In a rare special session, the Orange County Board of Supervisors today will examine grand jury allegations that Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas intervened in cases involving campaign contributors. But the board lacks the authority to make major changes in office operations and can't even force him to implement the panel's recommendations.

The office of district attorney is independently elected, established under the state Constitution to be separate from the rest of county government. The board approves the district attorney's annual budget, sets his salary and can order audits of department finances and operations. Many said Thursday that the strongest action supervisors could take is to censure Rackauckas.

But because much of the district attorney's budget is earmarked for specific programs like gang and drug prosecutions, the board would have little discretion in waving its budget pencil. Board efforts in the past to force changes from independently elected officials have yielded decidedly mixed results.

"This speaks to the incredible dilemma faced by everyone from the board to the whole county," said William R. Mitchell, a Newport Beach attorney and former director of Orange County Common Cause. "The grand jury is a credible organization. It's saying [Rackauckas is] a poor administrator and engages in extreme favoritism. There's nothing anyone can do about it."

The grand jury report accuses the district attorney of political cronyism, using public resources for personal business and hiring family members of political supporters over more qualified candidates.

Rackauckas said the report is full of inaccuracies and that it was motivated by political enemies. He vowed to respond in detail to each allegation.

Several supervisors expressed alarm about the allegations but have not indicated what action--if any--they plan to take. Rackauckas has 60 days under law to address the findings and recommendations. Supervisors said earlier this week that they also will respond to the jury's recommendations.

Issuing a censure would be a symbolic gesture that nonetheless might carry some sting. Supervisors did just that in 1994 with then-Recorder Lee A. Branch, who was removed by voters later that year.

Supervisors also could yank the authority it granted Rackauckas in 1999 to allow his top managers to serve "at will" under his control rather than being subject to civil service protections. The jury report recommended stripping Rackauckas of hiring authority after what it described as a history of favoritism. But it's unlikely the board could strip him of those powers.

A spokesman for the state attorney general's office--which helped produce the grand jury report--said officials haven't decided whether to pursue a criminal investigation of Rackauckas or anyone on his staff identified in the report.

Legal experts said state prosecutors would likely pursue charges only if there's evidence of an extraordinary misuse of office resources.

"There is a line between inappropriate behavior and criminal behavior," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "In a criminal case, the behavior has to be pretty egregious."

The grand jury spent eight months investigating the district attorney's office, aided by Deputy Atty. Gen. James Dutton. The resulting report found that Rackauckas and his staff violated county and office policies and repeatedly acted with an appearance of impropriety, including intervening in at least three criminal cases on behalf of political contributors. However, the report didn't accuse anyone of criminal wrongdoing.

Rackauckas said the panel bought into lies told by disgruntled employees who were passed over for management jobs when he reorganized the office in 1999. Many of the allegations were aired during Rackauckas' reelection campaign earlier this year by his challenger, Deputy Dist. Atty. Wally Wade. Rackauckas won in a landslide.

"I see this as a clean start," Rackauckas said this week. "I feel very good about the team we have in place and the entire group of deputy district attorneys and investigators."

Wade said Thursday that the jury's report warrants a criminal investigation. Among its findings was that county resources were used for personal and campaign activities--illegal under state law--including an investigator being sent to Riverside County to determine whether Rackauckas' son was driving with a suspended license.

In addition, the grand jury questioned whether Donald Blankenship, chief of the office's Bureau of Investigation, was reimbursed twice for meals and drinks by the county and from a special office fund to be used for crime-gathering expenses.

The board hasn't found success in bending the will of the district attorney in the past. After the county's 1994 bankruptcy, Dist. Atty. Mike Capizzi filed civil misconduct charges against two supervisors, who later supported an audit of the office. The audit, however, ended up largely praising the district attorney's performance.

Branch, then the clerk-recorder, first came under fire in 1985 after a scathing audit of his office. With little authority over him, supervisors in 1986 took away half his job, appointing Branch as recorder and Gary Granville as clerk. In 1988, they froze Branch's salary; in 1994, they officially censured him after allegations of sexual harassment. Later that year, a grand jury report criticized Branch for mismanagement, spurring supervisors to rejoin the clerk-recorder's office. That allowed Granville to successfully challenge Branch for the seat.

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