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Assemblyman-D.A. Rift Widens

Lawmaker from O.C. says Rackauckas' office was dishonest about results of a pilot project the district attorney's office was involved in.

June 21, 2004|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

A long-simmering feud between Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas and Assemblyman Todd Spitzer spilled over in Sacramento last week when the former county supervisor accused Rackauckas' office of lying to the Legislature.

Spitzer said the district attorney's office was being untruthful when it submitted a glowing report on the success of its participation in a pilot program designed to save taxpayer dollars by allowing people who pleaded guilty to driving on a suspended license to serve their sentences at home rather than in jail.

The report, he said, failed to note that some of the participants -- including several drunk drivers -- had been placed in the program even though they were ineligible, Spitzer said.

In what appeared to be a punitive move, Spitzer persuaded his colleagues to bar Orange County -- at least temporarily -- from participating in the pilot program.

Rackauckas' representatives were quick to defend their boss and the county's participation in the program. Rackauckas' campaign chairman, Michael Schroeder, called Spitzer's complaints "purely political."

The two -- both Republicans -- are potential political rivals: Spitzer has told some supporters that he is considering running for district attorney in 2006, when Rackauckas is up for reelection.

"He's positioning himself by these periodic attacks against Rackauckas in case he [runs for D.A.]," said Schroeder, former state Republican Party chairman. "Why else would an Orange County legislator get Orange County excluded from a pilot program?"

Spitzer could bring considerable resources to a campaign if he runs for district attorney. He has a political war chest of $900,000, according to reports filed through February.

Though once rare, such local feuds, particularly between members of the same party, are bound to become more common as term limits encourage politicians to return home and run for local office, said John J. Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College.

However, Spitzer said his concerns are grounded in good policy, not with an eye toward a future campaign. He has long criticized Rackauckas' management of the office, though he endorsed his candidacy in 1998.

By casting the dispute as political, Spitzer said, Rackauckas hopes to deflect legitimate criticism that his office failed to properly manage participants in the pilot program and then lied about it to legislators.

"This is part of a long line of well-documented instances where the D.A. has shown gross mismanagement of taxpayer dollars and jeopardizing public safety," Spitzer said, noting that two participants in the program, one accused of drunk driving and the other with a bench warrant for the same offense, were given home confinement even though they were ineligible.

Spitzer said he was suspicious about the report from Rackauckas' office, which was filed three months late and spoke glowingly of the program's successes. Orange County was the only county to participate in the pilot project, which expired Dec. 31, 2003. A bill by Sen. Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield) would revive the program for four years.

After spending three hours going through files at the North Justice Center in Fullerton, Spitzer said he discovered that despite assurances from the district attorney's office that it was screening for potential participants' suitability, deputy prosecutors weren't even in the courtroom when most of the 14 people were placed in the program.

Two participants with drunk-driving arrests or warrants were allowed to participate, a third served 12 extra days on a 45-day sentence, and a fourth was the subject of a bench warrant after failing to pay court fines, according to an analysis provided by Spitzer.

Asst. Dist. Atty. Mike Lubinski, who wrote the report, said judges decided who was placed in the program. All the participants completed their home confinement and took a class on ways to reinstate their driver's licenses. Participants were also required to pay for their electronic monitoring.

The program kept minor-misdemeanor offenders out of jail and saved money, Lubinski said. "Instead of a revolving door, this puts them on the road to a valid license. This program is getting unnecessary flak."

Spitzer, who often clashed with his supervisorial colleagues, repeatedly faulted Rackauckas' performance as district attorney before being elected to the Assembly in 2002. Among the disagreements: Spitzer led board opposition to paying a $50,000 attorney bill for Rackauckas, who hired a firm without board approval to respond to a scathing grand jury report criticizing Rackauckas' management, compiled with the help of the state attorney general.

The grand jury alleged that Rackauckas intervened in cases involving campaign supporters, misused office resources and hired relatives of political allies. Rackauckas blasted the report as inaccurate and unduly influenced by his political enemies.

The grand jury also accused the district attorney's office of misusing an investigative fund to entertain politicians, lobbyists and others. Last year, Spitzer authored a bill, supported by the California District Attorneys Assn., to limit the use of such investigative funds. He had criticized Rackauckas for allowing the money to be used to buy alcohol, a violation of county policy.

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