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Lockyer Defends Unusual Rackauckas Investigation

Attorney general says gravity of accusations justifies recording. He criticizes Orange County D.A., even though the probe found no crime.

November 22, 2002|Stuart Pfeifer and Dan Morain | Times Staff Writers

State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer on Thursday said his office was justified in asking a top official in the Orange County district attorney's office to wear a hidden recording device for a criminal investigation of the office, given the seriousness of the accusations.

In an interview, Lockyer said that his office had found no evidence warranting criminal prosecution and that his agents have no continuing investigation of the district attorney. But the attorney general, who by law has oversight of county prosecutors, sharply criticized Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas.

"While we do not have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of a crime, I've never seen a district attorney get so close to the line repeatedly," he said. "People in positions of authority have a duty to be extra careful."

Lockyer would not say what specific accusation prompted his office to set up the undercover operation.

It occurred shortly before his office assisted the Orange County Grand Jury in a separate investigation into the district attorney's office.

In June, the panel issued a lengthy report that faulted Rackauckas on an array of issues, including what it said were misuse of office resources, poor management and intervention in cases involving political supporters.

Rackauckas declined to comment for this article. He has maintained in the past that the grand jury was unduly swayed by his political enemies and that his conduct has been appropriate.

Michael Clesceri, the D.A.'s assistant investigations chief and a former Rackauckas ally, secretly wore the recording device -- a rare case in which one law enforcement agency has performed an undercover investigation of another.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys in Orange County said they were stunned by the undercover effort.

"A senior investigator wearing a wire to record other employees in the D.A.'s office? I wouldn't believe it," said Tom Goethals, former head of the district attorney's homicide unit and now an Orange County defense attorney.

Goethals said he is concerned about the controversy, which Lockyer and others have said is damaging morale in the state's third-largest prosecuting office.

"I hope it ends soon because this isn't good for the system or the community," Goethals said.

Some details of Clesceri's work for the attorney general were outlined in a letter that his lawyer to the office last week. The letter did not disclose the extent of the undercover operation, including who was recorded or how long Clesceri wore the device. According to the letter, officials in the district attorney's office learned of Clesceri's undercover work and have attempted to question him about it. On Nov. 13, Clesceri's lawyer, Michael Stone, sent the office a letter requesting that Clesceri not be questioned about his undercover work because of an unspecified medical ailment. He also indicated that Lockyer's office had instructed Clesceri to remain silent.

On Thursday, Stone defended Clesceri's work.

"Everything I know about the case is Mike did nothing wrong, and he was acting ... as directed by the attorney general," he said.

Lockyer's office started the investigation in 2001 after three prosecutors traveled to Sacramento to complain about what they claimed were criminal acts by Rackauckas. Rackauckas has said those officials were political enemies with a vendetta against him.

Lockyer said he has no regrets about how the case was handled.

"We take very seriously charges of political corruption," he said, noting that the use of concealed recording devices "is a routine investigative technique if you think you've got evidence of wrongdoing."

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