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Orange County

Official Sues Attorney General

The chief investigator for the Orange County district attorney alleges 400 hours of secret recordings and says his rights were violated.

May 06, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer and Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writers

The chief investigator for Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas is suing the state attorney general, further escalating a long-running feud between the two agencies.

A lawyer for investigations chief Donald Blankenship said the lawsuit focuses on secret recordings conducted in the district attorney's office by a district attorney employee working for the attorney general. Blankenship's lawyer, Charles Goldwasser, said the lawsuit was filed Monday in state court and seeks unspecified damages for alleged violations of Blankenship's civil rights.

Goldwasser said he believes that a top assistant to Blankenship conducted 400 hours of secret recordings and violated the chief's civil rights in the process. The attorney general conducted a criminal investigation of Blankenship, who was not charged, and assisted the county grand jury during a civil investigation of the office.

"It is not often that you find one of the leaders of a law enforcement agency suing the leader of the state's premier law enforcement agency. However, it is not often the state's premier law enforcement agency conducts an investigation that involves what appears to be extensive surreptitious recording in an effort to fish for evidence of wrongdoing," Goldwasser said.

In November, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer acknowledged that he had authorized the secret recording but said it was limited to a few conversations and was part of an investigation into allegations that a district attorney official was dishonest. On Monday, Goldwasser acknowledged that Blankenship was the target of that probe.

The chief was not charged with any crime, but the attorney general wrote a letter to Rackauckas saying Blankenship was dishonest with investigators -- a finding that might have to be disclosed to defense lawyers if the chief is ever called to testify in a criminal case.

In addition to Lockyer, the lawsuit seeks damages from two attorney general officials, Gary Schons and James Dutton, and Blankenship's assistant chief, Michael Clesceri. It was Clesceri who secretly recorded conversations with Blankenship in 2001 and 2002, Goldwasser said.

Clesceri, who also serves as a council member in Fullerton, has been on medical leave from the district attorney's office since May 2002. He could not be reached for comment.

Schons, a senior assistant attorney general who supervised the investigation, said the lawsuit is without merit: "The investigation was conducted totally lawfully."

Monday's filing is the latest salvo between the two law enforcement agencies. Earlier this year, Lockyer sent Rackauckas a scathing letter that accused the district attorney of improperly handling cases that involved friends and political allies. Lockyer also was highly critical of Rackauckas during an interview with The Times last year.

"While we do not have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of a crime, I've never seen a district attorney get so close to the line repeatedly," he said.

The attorney general assisted the county grand jury in 2001 and 2002 during a civil investigation of the district attorney's office.

The grand jury issued a highly critical report about the office in June, accusing both Rackauckas and Blankenship of improprieties, including the misuse of public resources.

Rackauckas denied wrongdoing, in a written response to the grand jury report, and said the panel was misled during the investigation, which Lockyer's staff supervised.

Last year, a Lockyer spokesman defended the secret recording.

"This was for a narrow purpose, a very narrow window of time and for a specific reason. We were able to corroborate that that official had lied, but we did not file charges," spokesman Nathan Barankin said.

"We authorized the use of a wire for the exclusive and narrow purpose of trying to corroborate whether that official had indeed lied," Barankin added.

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