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O.C. Officials Take No Action Against D.A.

Government: Grand jury accused Rackauckas of intervening in criminal cases for political reasons. Supervisor questions state's handling of matter.

September 25, 2002|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County supervisors on Tuesday chose not to discipline--or even criticize--Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas over grand jury accusations that he practiced political favoritism and intervened in cases involving campaign contributors.

Instead, one supervisor questioned whether the state attorney general's office--which assisted the grand jury with its investigation--handled the case properly.

"I have many questions," Supervisor Todd Spitzer said. "Did the attorney general waste everybody's time? Is this just a witch hunt or will the allegations have some validity?"

Attorneys hired by the board to examine the accusations against Rackauckas said Tuesday that the supervisors don't have the authority to order changes in the district attorney's office because Rackauckas is an independently elected official who answers to the voters.

Supervisors could have censured the district attorney or asked him to come before them to discuss the accusations.

"Nothing is preventing the board from asking the district attorney to appear before the supervisors and answer some inconsistencies," said Jayne W. Williams, from the Northern California law firm of Meyers Nave Riback Silver & Wilson.

The Orange County Grand Jury report accused Rackauckas of intervening in criminal cases at the request of political supporters, hiring family members of friends over more qualified candidates and using public resources for personal business.

Rackauckas has defended his record, saying the grand jury was misled by disgruntled employees who backed his political foes.

In his 153-page response, Rackauckas said the grand jury presented a "one-sided" view of his office.

After receiving the grand jury findings, the Board of Supervisors commissioned its own report by private attorneys examining what its response should be. The attorney who wrote that report said they could not independently judge the accuracy of the grand jury findings because they did not have access to the panel's interviews.

Examining the allegations was "like having one hand tied behind your back," Williams said.

In the end, the board voted to forward its report to the attorney general's office, which does have oversight of the district attorney.

"Not exactly a profile in courage," said Fred Smoller, head of the Henley Social Science Research Center at Chapman University in Orange, echoing the view of several political activists and observers.

Smoller said the Board of Supervisors had little to gain from going after Rackauckas, who has strong support from Orange County's Republican establishment.

"On the government level, you have an independently elected and reelected district attorney. On the political level, you have a very powerful Republican Party as part of the establishment that [the supervisors] cannot afford to alienate if they want to remain in politics," Smoller said.

Rackauckas said in a statement that he was "pleased" by the board's handling of the matter.

Spitzer expressed frustration at the county's inability to better respond to the grand jury accusations. He was critical of the outside attorneys' report, saying he thought there were some grand jury charges that could have been better examined.

He cited allegations that one top employee from the district attorney's office spent county funds to buy drinks as part of lobbying efforts. It's against county policy for employees to buy alcohol while conducting county business, Spitzer said.

Williams responded that there are times when investigators buy alcohol for informers or in undercover situations. The comment drew an outburst from Spitzer.

"That's not the example here. The money was used to buy alcohol for lobbying purposes," he said.

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