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Orange County

D.A. Reverses Lobbyist Policy

Law: Tony Rackauckas had allowed staff to use law enforcement funds to buy food and alcohol for politicians. O.C. supervisor urges him to reimburse taxpayers.

October 11, 2002|STUART PFEIFER and JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas has canceled a new policy that allowed his staff to use money earmarked for law enforcement activities to buy food and alcohol for lobbyists and lawmakers.

The action, which Rackauckas outlined in a letter to Orange County Chief Executive Officer Michael Schumacher, comes three months after he created the rules in response to a grand jury report.

That report criticized the district attorney for permitting the practice even though it violated county rules.

County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who had been critical of the alcohol expenses, praised Rackauckas for his action but implored him to reimburse the county for alcohol his employees purchased during lobbying meetings.

"I think the D.A. finally got it right," Spitzer said. "He's acknowledged he's going to comply with county policy, but he still has an obligation to reimburse the county [for alcohol expenses]. That's an improper use of taxpayer funds."

A spokeswoman for Rackauckas issued a written statement saying the district attorney would not comment for this article.

In his memo to Schumacher, Rackauckas said his employees will now act "in accordance with county policy," which prohibits employees from billing the county for alcohol. The memo said lobbying expenses will be billed to the office's general fund, not the special witness fund.

The spending became an issue for Rackauckas over the summer when the Orange County Grand Jury issued a report that questioned the more than $4,700 his chief investigator billed the county for food and alcohol during meetings with lawmakers, lobbyists and others.

The money came from a fund used 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.

The grand jury noted that a 1994 office policy prohibited employees from using the fund for anything other than law enforcement expenses, such as witness protection and undercover operations.

While the panel recommended that Rackauckas enforce the 1994 rules, he instead changed the policy to allow the fund to be used for lobbying.

In recent weeks, Schumacher and county counsel Benjamin de Mayo had pressed Rackauckas for explanations about his policy for alcohol purchases, Spitzer said.

"It's a violation of county policy. It's a clear rule and everyone knows it," Spitzer said.

Schumacher said he was satisfied with Rackauckas' actions.

"The district attorney has told me in writing the way he plans to handle the payment of costs for legislative activities. I have confidence that's how he will proceed," Schumacher said.

But the policy reversal was not enough to satisfy some of Rackauckas' critics. Orange County government watchdog Bill Mitchell, former chairman of the county's Common Cause chapter, said Rackauckas should discipline those who violated the rules.

"What's the message for the public when this individual is allowed to bend and break the rules?" Mitchell asked.

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.

The grand jury's June report accused Rackauckas of misusing public resources, showing favoritism in cases involving political supporters and in personnel decisions. The district attorney has denied any wrongdoing.

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