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O.C. District Attorney Eases Rules on Use of Office Funds

Law enforcement: Rackauckas, ignoring critics, will allow staffers to buy food and alcohol for politicians with money once intended for prosecution.

October 02, 2002|STUART PFEIFER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas has changed office policy to allow his staff to entertain politicians and lobbyists with funds earmarked for law enforcement work even though the grand jury recommended he ban the practice.

The Orange County Grand Jury in June criticized Rackauckas for allowing a top official to use money from a special fund to buy alcohol and food at political functions. The panel said the fund was established to pay for prosecution and investigation expenses and recommended that Rackauckas restrict the money to those uses.

Rackauckas responded by changing the rules to allow the fund to be used for any "matter of interest" to the office, including legislation related to law enforcement, according to a revised office policy.

The new guidelines would permit district attorney staffers to use the fund to buy alcohol and food while discussing legislation or other matters.

Under a 1994 office policy, the fund was to be used to pay for witness protection, meetings with informants and expenses related to undercover investigations. County supervisors allocated $90,000 for the fund in last year's budget.

Elsewhere in California, district attorneys have similar funds but do not allow the money to be used for lobbying.

Instead, they use county lobbyists or other funds.

"We do send prosecutors to testify before the Legislature and to meet with legislators, but that money comes out of the travel budget," said Liz Pursell, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County district attorney's office. "As for alcohol, that's certainly not in the county policy."

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, said her office has a fund that is used infrequently and only to pay the expenses of witnesses or crime informants.

"We don't use it for lobbying. Why would we do that?" she said, noting that her office would use a lobbyist if it needed such services.

A spokeswoman for Rackauckas said he would not comment for this story.

The fund became an issue for Rackauckas in June when the grand jury assailed chief investigator Don Blankenship's "casual and unwarranted" use of the fund. The report noted that Blankenship used the fund to pay for meals and alcohol at meetings with law enforcement officials, politicians, lobbyists, government employees, campaign consultants, clergy and journalists.

Between 1999 and 2001, Blankenship billed the fund more than $4,600, primarily for alcohol at the Santa Ana Elks Club, where he is a member, according to the grand jury report.

The grand jury also accused Blankenship, who oversees a staff of more than 100 investigators, of billing both the fund and travel budget for the same expenses. After the grand jury report was published, Blankenship agreed to refund $209.65 to the county. Rackauckas said he implemented new accounting policies to ensure employees are not reimbursed twice for the same expense.

The report also accused Rackauckas of misusing public resources, showing favoritism in cases involving political supporters and hiring friends and relatives of political contributors.

Rackauckas filed a lengthy response to the report, defending his actions in office and blaming the criticism on political enemies who influenced the grand jury.

Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said last week that his office looked into allegations against Rackauckas and determined no criminal charges should be filed.

The Board of Supervisors decided not to take action against the district attorney. But Supervisor Todd Spitzer last week questioned whether using public funds to purchase alcohol was a violation of county policy.

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