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Lawsuits Litter D.A.'s Road

March 16, 2003

The signposts receding in Tony Rackauckas' rear-view mirror continue to signal possible trouble, but the county's district attorney chooses to keep his eyes on the road ahead rather than pulling over to investigate.

March was barely under way when Rackauckas was hit with yet another civil lawsuit filed by a former prosecutor. In a recent federal court filing, Joseph P. Smith alleges he was transferred out of the district attorney's office in retaliation for asking state prosecutors to investigate alleged conflicts of interest involving Rackauckas. Smith was one of three deputy prosecutors who flew to Sacramento in 2001 to ask the state attorney general's office to determine if Rackauckas had intervened in criminal and civil cases on behalf of friends and political allies.

Smith's filing added to the employment-related lawsuits piling up in Southern California courtrooms. Former Deputy Dist. Atty. Mike Jacobs also has filed a civil lawsuit against Rackauckas. So did five other employees who were transferred out of their jobs -- including former Deputy Dist. Atty. Wally Wade.

Rackauckas continues to do what he's done all along when dogged by controversy: blame opponents for playing political games.

No matter that the state attorney general in February determined that a Rackauckas lieutenant was not truthful during a criminal probe of the district attorney's office. Even though state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer's investigation found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the district attorney's office, Lockyer took the highly unusual action of publicly criticizing Rackauckas' ethical behavior. And don't forget the Orange County Grand Jury report issued last year that scored the district attorney for hiring relatives of political supporters and using investigators to track his son's whereabouts.

Rackauckas, who was sworn in two months ago for his second term, denied wrongdoing but acknowledged that his first term "wasn't mistake-free or error-free." Rackauckas also pledged to open better lines of communication with his staff -- a step in the right direction.

In a county with a growing budget crisis -- and the district attorney's office payroll down by about 12 deputy prosecutors and 17 investigators -- the last thing voters should be worrying about is a continuing failure to communicate. Rackauckas maintains he learned from his early mistakes. The proof will be if the ride gets smoother during his second term.

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