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Prosecutor Fired by D.A. to Return

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas loses another in a string of such cases. This dispute involved a probe that hit close to home.

March 21, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

An arbitrator has ordered Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas to reinstate a veteran homicide prosecutor who was fired in 2001 after asking state authorities to investigate the district attorney for alleged wrongdoing.

Mike Jacobs, a 25-year prosecutor who once managed the office's homicide unit, was terminated a few months after asking the state attorney general to investigate Rackauckas for alleged misdeeds, including intervening in cases on behalf of friends and political allies. After an investigation, state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer declined to file criminal charges.

The private arbitrator's ruling, released Thursday, includes back pay and benefits that could be worth $300,000. Jacobs earns about $145,000 a year.

Jacobs' complaints eventually attracted the attention of the Orange County Grand Jury, which in June issued a critical report about Rackauckas' conduct in office.

Among its recommended reforms, the panel said Rackauckas should no longer be allowed to make personnel decisions. Rackauckas declined to implement that recommendation.

Rackauckas declined to discuss the arbitrator's ruling. In arguing that he had a right to fire Jacobs, he has said that the prosecutor had exhibited poor judgment as a manager and violated department policy by criticizing the district attorney before the news media.

The arbitrator, Kenneth Perea, ruled that Jacobs' comments were constitutionally protected free speech and of legitimate concern to the public. Perea's ruling is binding.

But the arbitrator's ruling is not the end of Jacobs' legal battle with the district attorney. Still pending is a federal whistle-blower lawsuit that Jacobs filed after he was terminated. The lawsuit seeks damages for emotional distress, punitive damages and attorney fees, said Jacobs' attorneys, Gary Bennett and Dennis Moss.

Jacobs, considered one of the county's top homicide prosecutors, said at a news conference Thursday that he's thrilled to be returning to work.

"I want my job back and I want my badge back," Jacobs said. "I didn't like having them taken from me."

The decision is the latest legal setback for the district attorney. Last year, an arbitrator ordered Rackauckas to reinstate a manager he had fired in 1999 for allegedly misusing her office computer. Karen Davis received back pay and benefits worth about $300,000, her attorney said.

Another top manager, Devallis Rutledge, sued the office after Rackauckas demoted him. The county agreed to pay him $45,000 to settle that lawsuit.

Still pending are lawsuits by at least six employees, including one by veteran prosecutor Joseph Smith, who said he was given undesirable assignments because he joined Jacobs in complaining about Rackauckas to the state attorney general.

News of the Jacobs decision comes as Rackauckas has been lobbying the Board of Supervisors for more funding.

But supervisors Chairman Tom Wilson said, "He's going to be that much shorter in terms of his ability to fund his office."

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