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Orange County

Lawsuit Alleges Retaliation by D.A.

An ex-prosecutor's $5-million action says his transfer by Rackauckas resulted from whistle-blowing.

March 05, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

A former Orange County prosecutor filed a $5-million federal lawsuit Tuesday against Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, alleging that his transfer was in retaliation for asking state prosecutors to investigate his boss for alleged conflicts of interest.

Joseph P. Smith was one of three deputy prosecutors who flew to Sacramento in 2001 to ask the state attorney general's office to open a probe of Rackauckas for allegedly intervening in criminal and civil cases on behalf of friends and political allies.

The Orange County Grand Jury ultimately issued a scathing report about Rackauckas' conduct, but state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer declined to file criminal charges.

Rackauckas transferred Smith and five other prosecutors to the district attorney's family support division just hours after winning reelection in March 2002. The five included Rackauckas' election opponent, Deputy Dist. Atty. Wally Wade, and several of Wade's supporters. The family support division later became part of a new state agency, so the six effectively were transferred out of the district attorney's office.

Rather than work for the state agency, Smith resigned to open a private legal practice. He alleged in the lawsuit, filed at the federal court in Santa Ana, that the job transfer violated his right to freedom of speech and to political affiliation.

Rackauckas declined to discuss the allegations.

Smith's lawsuit is the latest in a series of employment lawsuits filed against the district attorney. Former Deputy Dist. Atty. Mike Jacobs, who joined Smith in taking complaints to the attorney general, filed a federal suit after Rackauckas fired him in 2001. Five other transferred employees, Wade included, also have sued Rackauckas. All the lawsuits are pending.

During the meeting with state prosecutors in February 2001, Smith and the other whistle-blowers complained that Rackauckas halted an investigation into one of his friends and political supporters and ordered his staff to withdraw a consumer protection lawsuit against a company owned by George Argyros, now the U.S. ambassador to Spain and also a campaign contributor. Rackauckas later asked the attorney general's office to take over the consumer protection case to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Smith's lawyer, Jerry Steering, said his client was reluctant to file the complaint with the attorney general but did so because he thought it was his duty as a prosecutor.

"He felt he was working for a crook," Steering said. "He felt justice was for sale in Orange County. That's why he went to the A.G.'s office."

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