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A Friendship Takes Political Toll on D.A.

Investigations and discord scar Orange County's Tony Rackauckas because of his link to a controversial backer.

March 12, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Newport Beach businessman Patrick Di Carlo had been investigated by the Orange County district attorney's office for so long that he said it amounted to harassment. He thought it was time for a new district attorney.

Tony Rackauckas was an Orange County judge known as an independent thinker who believed in giving people who deserved it second chances.

When Rackauckas ran for top prosecutor five years ago, Di Carlo quickly became one of his biggest supporters, contributing thousands of dollars to the campaign and mingling with potential donors at fund-raisers.

The campaign spawned a relationship that culminated on the night of Rackauckas' inauguration, when the new district attorney slipped into a tuxedo and celebrated at Di Carlo's Mediterranean villa overlooking Newport Bay.

Within three years, however, the friendship became a focus of investigations by the grand jury and state attorney general as well as the catalyst for a battle that continues to divide the office.

Last June, the Orange County Grand Jury issued a civil report accusing Rackauckas of abusing his power to help several friends and campaign contributors, including Di Carlo. Among its findings, the panel faulted Rackauckas for reassigning an investigator who was looking into Di Carlo's business practices.

Even though no law enforcement agency filed any charges against Rackauckas or Di Carlo, questions about this unlikely friendship persist, particularly in the district attorney's office.

Friends describe Di Carlo, 65, as gregarious and generous, a man who turns routine business meetings into social engagements and whose face lights up when talking about his seven children.

But according to interviews, court records and regulatory documents, Di Carlo has made false statements on a concealed-weapons permit application and in bank and SEC reports.

He's been sued at least 25 times since 1976 and was ordered to pay damages totaling nearly $3 million in 13 of those cases. He has said that he attended USC, played on the school's football team and worked as an assistant football coach, but later admitted those claims were untrue.

Di Carlo, who now runs an investment consulting firm with his son, denied some of the accusations against him and said the rest are distortions -- regarding innocent mistakes that should not reflect on his character, or Rackauckas'. He said he's an ethical businessman who has been unfairly hounded for years by authorities.

Rackauckas has steadfastly defended Di Carlo, even though the friendship baffles some of the district attorney's supporters.

"There is an irony in all this, in the sense that [Rackauckas] always had an impeccable reputation as being a hard-charging, straight-shooting, very ethical guy," said Superior Court Judge C. Robert Jameson, a Rackauckas friend. "And I don't know if these allegations [against Rackauckas] are true, but I guess the problem is getting yourself into a situation where they could be made in the first place."

To others, Rackauckas' loyalty to Di Carlo is in keeping with the sense of independence that marked the former's tenure as a judge, when he was known for putting fairness above politics even if it meant making unpopular decisions.

"When he was appointed to the bench, he showed judicial courage," said defense attorney Ron Brower, another longtime friend. " He would make tough calls without any worry to what anyone's reaction to it would be."

Rackauckas would not comment for this story. But in past interviews, he has said that the friendship with Di Carlo should not be hard to understand.

"I enjoy the guy's company," Rackauckas said in a 2001 interview. "In my view, he's an honest businessman."


In the 1980s, Rackauckas was a rising star in the Orange County district attorney's homicide unit, a man so passionate about his beliefs that he took an unpaid leave to campaign against state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird after she reversed one of his death sentences. Gov. George Deukmejian appointed Rackauckas to the Orange County judiciary in 1990. Rackauckas gained a reputation as a GOP stalwart but also as a judge more likely than many colleagues to give defendants a second chance.

If he thought the "three strikes" sentence was too harsh for a given crime, for example, he simply wouldn't impose it.

Rackauckas has said his views are shaped in part by his own troubled teen years as a gang member in Long Beach and by a stint in Los Angeles County's juvenile hall.

Rackauckas dropped out of high school, joined the Army and eventually earned his equivalency diploma. He said he decided to go to law school because, as a teen, he was impressed by the power lawyers wielded in the courtroom.

"He's a guy who doesn't see himself as better than other people," said Nancy Clark, who works as a sentencing consultant for Orange County defense attorneys.

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