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Orange County

D.A.'s Office Dumps Spokeswoman

Aide says dismissal follows complaints she made about handling of the news media.

May 28, 2003|Christine Hanley and Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writers

In the latest sign of turmoil within the Orange County district attorney's office, Tony Rackauckas on Tuesday dismissed his spokeswoman after she complained about his policy for handling the news media.

Michelle Emard said she was marginalized once she took a stand against Rackauckas' decision last fall to stop talking to reporters from the Los Angeles Times and other news organizations who reported criticism of him and his office. She said she told Rackauckas the practice was counterproductive and unprofessional.

Emard, who according a bio written by the district attorney's office was hired to "improve the way this office interacts with the media," was informed of the decision by Rackauckas during a brief meeting with him and his director of administration.

Emard, who is the second person to leave the position in six months, said she was not told why she was being released. County officials said an explanation is not required, since Emard served at the discretion of a department head and has no right to appeal.

Rackauckas did not respond to a request for comment.

He is a former prosecutor and judge who was elected last year to his second term as district attorney. Rackauckas has been the focus of several complaints from lawyers in the office and from outside agencies.

Last summer the Orange County Grand Jury released a report critical of the way Rackauckas managed his office, accusing him of misusing public resources, intervening on behalf of campaign donors with cases before his office, and improperly basing employment decisions on politics and perceived loyalty of workers.

Among its recommendations, the panel suggested that the district attorney be stripped of his power to make personnel decisions. Rackauckas defended his work and declined to institute most of the recommendations, saying the investigation was unduly influenced by his political enemies.

State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, whose office assisted with the grand jury investigation and also conducted a separate criminal investigation of the district attorney's office, wrote a stinging letter to Rackauckas in October, accusing him of several improprieties. Among these were his handling of criminal investigations involving friends and political supporters

Lockyer declined to file criminal charges but suggested that Rackauckas should have removed himself from the cases to avoid the appearance of any conflicts.

Before Rackauckas was elected, the Orange County D.A. did not have a media relations office, and reporters talked directly with deputy prosecutors about their cases.

Tori Richards was hired as the office's first media relations director in 1999 and helped organize its media relations division. She resigned last year after what she described as repeated disagreements over the way the office handled the media.

"The top prosecutors under Rackauckas resented the openness I had established with the press. This made it very difficult to do my job," Richards said Tuesday.

Emard has worked on Capitol Hill as a communications advisor for the National Republican Congressional Committee and a fund-raiser for the Republican National Committee. She moved to the news business with a job as a researcher for "The McLaughlin Group" and later worked for CNN, CNBC and Fox.

Emard became well-known among Orange County reporters while she served as the media affairs manager for the El Toro Local Redevelopment Agency, dealing with them regularly about contentious issues related to the closing and reuse of the former Marine Corps air station.

"I don't even pretend to know the internal politics of the district attorney's office. But as far as the El Toro issue, we never had anything but respect for her," said James Campbell, assistant to Supervisor Chuck Smith.

"Michelle was so fair and evenhanded, she even gained respect from anti-airport supporters."

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