A Rackauckas Retrospective: Is This the County we want to be?


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Ah, Orange County. California’s ruling bastion of rich white privilege.  Populated largely in the 70’s by post-Watts riot White Flight, Orange County has long boasted a voting majority of people who are either very well-off or think they may be some day well-off and want more than anything else to be kept safe from the poor folks, most of whom are dark.   Kill them, beat them, frame them and jail them, whatever you have to do, just keep them away from us.  And our long-time District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, the consummate OC politician, stays in power by playing to those fears, as pathetic as his performance may actually be.

Observers decry the “two-tiered system of justice” so prevalent throughout the world for millennia but something we would have hoped America had evolved past – a slap on the wrist for the wealthy and well-connected, the book thrown at you if you’re powerless.  Well, Orange County takes this two-tiered system of justice to Third-World levels.

Powerful politicians (of both parties) can break multiple laws to attempt the greatest land heist in OC history and nothing happens;  multiple policemen can fatally shoot multiple fleeing unarmed young Latino men in the back, and a cursory Rackauckas investigation will INEVITABLY conclude that the cop was justified because the young man MIGHT have had a gun.  (As far as the cop knew.)

But our bold top lawman will relentlessly pursue (the wrong guy) for crumpling a $5 campaign sign for a Republican pol, or a group of Muslim students for interrupting an Israeli ambassador’s speech.  He will put a 16-year old in prison for life for handing a friend a gun loaded with birdshot.  And he will spend tens of thousands of YOUR money making the county safe from Paul Lucas!

It’s Tony Rackauckas who calls those shots.  And he does it because that’s what you elect him to do.  The folks who vote in OC elections, especially a low-turnout one like the upcoming June 3 “primary” determining if this is going to continue another four years, are the same ones that show up for jury duty, and unanimously gave their blessing to the grotesque police murder of Kelly Thomas – the suffocation to death of a harmless, frail, mentally ill man by two obese Fullerton cops while a third one bashed his face in with a taser butt, and three more looked on uselessly.

I just want to ask, in this piece, before you cast your votes June 3, do we want to keep being that sort of County?  I don’t.

Looking for unifying themes in the 15-year tenure of this “Worse-than-no DA,” we find the three most obvious categories to be:

  1. Impunity for corrupt but well-connected politicians
  2. Impunity for brutal and killer cops; and 
  3. Draconian justice and injustice for the poor, minorities, and the otherwise powerless and unpopular.

We will also look at these other interesting aspects of Tony Rackauckas’ DA career:  His deep disrespect for the US Constitution, his politically motivated idiocies which he wastes millions of your taxpayer money defending UNTIL they’re inevitably declared unconstitutional, and his actual PRIDE in these faceplants, as he boasts about them on the campaign trail!

And finally the degree to which, more than anything, he is a politician who exemplifies the vice of cronyism, which he has honed to a fine art.  Shall we start?  As Carl Sagan, and now Neil DeGrasse Tyson, would say, “Come with me…”

 

Corruption?  What Corruption?

A cheer went up among honest OC observers and county workers when the news came out last summer that the FBI had sent a political corruption unit to this sleazy county.  For, as one of our premier journalists likes to snark (off the record) “Either this is the cleanest county in history or Rackauckas is the most LAX district attorney in the nation.”   (Hint: the latter, duh.)  We’re still waiting for the first of many shoes to drop from the FBI unit, but pages and pages could be written of instances of real or apparent corruption in this county, perpetrated by well-connected pols of both parties, during Rackauckas’ 15-year tenure, which evoked either not a peep from his office, or else a cursory investigation inevitably concluding “Nothing to see here.”

Let’s start with this:  A couple of months ago several important pieces of legislation were stymied in our state Senate, because the Democrats (who like to actually govern) had temporarily lost their “super-majority” of 2/3.  This was partly because we had a couple of Democratic crooks in the Senate, but the crowning touch was the loss of LA’s Rod Wright, who had lied about his residency when running for office, and was taken down by his fellow Democrat Los Angeles DA Jackie Lacy – a DA who takes her job seriously. 

There is absolutely no excuse for the same thing not to have happened to our own OC state senator Mimi Walters, whose little Irvine apartment was most certainly a sham residence for the purposes of her political run.  But OUR DA does not consider the policing of political malfeasance to be part of his job, certainly not against a popular, up-and-coming, sitting politician of the Ruling Party.  This was an omission with legislative consequences which some may celebrate but nobody honest can.  And the lesson has been taught that, in Orange County at least, residency rules mean nothing, and lying under oath means nothing.  Now Senator Mimi is running for Congress as the heavy favorite where she can take her lying habits to Washington DC.  Thank you, Tony.  Ka-CHING!

Close to my own heart was what I referred to, above, as “the greatest attempted land heist in OC history”  (although the current shenanigans surrounding the Angels Stadium lease may steal that title away.)  I’m talking about “The Great Fairgrounds Swindle,” which began with the 2009 attempt of the OC Fair Board to convince Sacramento to sell our Fairgrounds to THEM, the majority of whom had reconstituted themselves as a “Foundation” – the better to profit off our public lands.  The majority of the Board at the time followed the lead of Dave Ellis, the driving force behind the swindle.  Due to what he knew would be the great unpopularity of his scheme, he used FALSE CLAIMS and MONEY LAUNDERING to conceal paying crooked just-termed-out state Senate leader Dick Ackerman to LOBBY his former colleagues in the legislature to approve the sale of the property – lobbying which was ILLEGAL under the Milton Marks Act as tricky Dick had only been out of the Senate for seven months.

As sometimes happens when outraged folks make TOO MUCH NOISE TO IGNORE, the sleepy Rackauckas had his underling Bill Feccia launch a long, expensive, but half-assed sham investigation, ending predictably with the exoneration of Tony’s old cronies.  “Nothing to see here, move along.”  Perusing the whitewash, friends of mine noticed that Tony’s drones had made no attempt to subpoena ANY records – phone records or invoices – had not talked to the dissenting members of the Fair Board, and hadn’t interviewed any of the lawmakers who’d been called and lobbied by Ackerman.

Tony’s snotty spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder brashly announced that “If anyone else has any more evidence, bring it to us and we’ll re-open the investigation.”  Yours truly took her at her word, and assembled copies of invoices and phone records my friends had managed to obtain, in a 72-page beautifully bound notebook and walked it right over to her Santa Ana office.  Surprise, nothing ever happened, although she admits getting my package.  So, in this county, as long as you’re powerful and well-connected, the Milton Marks Act means nothing, false claims mean nothing, and money laundering means nothing.  Thank you, Tony!  Ka-CHING!

The list of rampant OC political corruption gone unaddressed by our DA could go on all day and into the night.  Anaheim itself – in the last couple years now that lobbyist and former mayor Curt Pringle has settled into running the town through his dependable Council majority – could alone provide enough evidence of Rackauckas’ uselessness.  What have we had just this past year - a $158 million tax giveaway to one hotelier who bankrolled the races of the four-member majority that approved it; a fantastically expensive STREETCAR to be built on the public dime but designed to benefit mainly Disney and other Pringle clients;  a flabbergasting sweetheart deal for billionaire Angels owner Arte Moreno to lease the land around the stadium for $1 a year for 66 years;  and a hinky, rushed-through scheme to fund the expansion of the Convention Center and do God knows what else, which NEEDS to go to a vote of the people.  This should not be the job of our tireless CATER and OCCORD’s attorney to stop – this is the stuff any serious DA would have POUNCED on.

When our press – these days usually the excellent Voice of OC – does its job and embarrasses Tony enough, he will sometimes get off his duff and pretend to investigate.  But powerful OC politicians have nothing to worry about.  Janet Nguyen?  The county’s greatest menace to good governance, the enabler and coddler of Mauk’s and Bustamante’s corruption, the misdirector of public safety funds for PR campaigns and phony sole source justification, the single-handed destroyer of CalOptima with her appointments of unqualified cronies, the political campaigner using paid county staff … and the OC GOP’s “Local Elected of the Year” and Great Asian Hope?  Clean bill of health.

But don’t get this wrong – it is a bipartisan lovefest, this benign neglect of Tony R.  The first time I saw him in person, I was leading a protest outside the Democrats’ Truman Dinner fundraiser called “Occupy the Democratic Party,” and there was little Tony Rackauckas, literally sneaking into the event keeping himself hidden by buses.  (Ironic, me a Democrat protesting outside and Tony a Republican sneaking in to hobnob with Miguel Pulido and friends.)  I yelled out, “Hey Tony, what are you doing at a Democrat event?” and he laughed nervously, “I’ve got lots of friends in both parties!”

Sure enough, a Democratic politician of a certain status is just as immune from any Rackauckas scrutiny as any Republican.  There hasn’t been much shadier up in these parts this past decade than powerful Irvine Democrat Larry Agran‘s waste, secrecy, and sole source contracts in service to his mooncalf of a “Great Park” … but with both Larry and Tony so close to the favored consultants Forde and Mollrich, Larry was assured of no unwanted attention, at least until the local Republicans took over his town.  Public outcry got Potemkin investigations of Tom Daly‘s on-the-county-job womanizing and Jordan Brandman‘s misuse of school board resources to campaign for Council, but nobody was surprised to see these two corporatist, Pringle-connected Democrats let off the hook.

Possibly our dirtiest OC Democrat, Santa Ana Mayor-for-Life Miguel Pulido, who has become mysteriously and fabulously wealthy during his 22-year tenure, has finally merited a Rackauckas investigation (due to the stubborn investigative work of the VOC’s Adam) for his highly suspicious and profitable “property swap” with a beneficiary of his vote.  But having seen how the two small men fraternized at that 2011 Truman Dinner, I’m going to bet on another “Nothing to see here.”  Thank you Tony.  Ka-CHING!

What’s all this “Ka-CHING?”  What I’m thinking of is an event that Tony and his campaign boast about endlessly – the Balboa Bay Club fundraiser last February where he raised a staggering $419,000 in one night – from Democrats, Republicans, corporations, unions – ANYBODY who might some day fear a DA investigation but now may sleep easier.   Having at the time no opponent (as he hadn’t the two previous cycles) what did Tony really need the money for?  He will spread it around to all who support him, in a wide loving circle jerk of OC unaccountability.  One pictures tribute being paid to an emperor.

In fact it would seem that the only way a well-connected, up-and-coming, Republican politician could possibly get on the wrong side of Tony Rackauckas’ justice apparatus is if he locks up too many of his female county underlings in his office and masturbates in front of them WAY too many times, for WAY too many years for Tony to ignore.  Then, sir, you have gone too far.  Although in fact it seems Tony may be in the process of bungling even THAT case – the Carlos Bustamante one – just as he did the Kelly Thomas one which was in turn the exception to his OTHER rule, that of never prosecuting COPS.

Carte Blanche for Killer Cops

If you talk to people from outside the Orange Curtain much, you’ve probably heard it:  “Hey at least this isn’t Fullerton!”  (now notorious as the place where Kelly Thomas’ brutal police murderers were acquitted) or “Hey at least this isn’t Anaheim!” (now infamous as the place where questionable fatal police shooting after questionable fatal police shooting has been justified and even rewarded) or just simply “Hey at least this isn’t Orange County!”

If you’ve read any of the DA reports on recent police shootings – and Lord there are dozens – you’ll agree they sound less like objective investigations than defense briefs for the cops.  I’m told that’s somewhat standard, that most DA’s have a symbiotic relationship with the local police forces, but these things are twisted and extreme.  The cops’ version of events is inscribed as Gospel and never questioned, while the RARE dissenting witness that the DA will deign to talk to has their credibility laboriously besmirched.  (Most witnesses, we know, are intimidated, often because of their immigration status, and are sometimes pressed to move out of the neighborhood where they can’t be found later.)  Anomalies in the police version of events are brushed right over.  Video evidence is seized, then “lost,” then its very existence denied.  Gunshot residue tests, for when cops claim their victim had shot at them?  Why, didn’t you know those tests are no longer taken?   Turns out there were too many times that no residue could be found, showing the cops to be murderous liars.  So, NO MORE GUNSHOT RESIDUE TESTS.

The one and only time that Tony Rackauckas pressed charges against killer cops was in the world-famous Kelly Thomas suffocation-and-beating death.  After months of trying to suppress the video, after six months of raucous street protests, Rackauckas just had to cave in and do what came so unnaturally for him – hold terrible policemen accountable.   It was pretty impossible to sweep this one under the rug – a helpless, WHITE victim, with tenacious defenders in the persons of a retired cop dad and a millionaire blogger, and the slow, grueling murder caught on public surveillance cameras.

But still Tony managed to botch the case, which he insisted on arguing himself – the first one he’d done in many years.  Red flags should have gone up when it was discovered that Tony’s lead investigator was best friends with the Fullerton Police Chief.  Knowledgeable observers now agree that Tony charged the two cops wrong, gave each of them charges they were able to beat with their very capable defense.   And whether it was a heartless jury, a thrown prosecution, or both, Orange County was left with the lesson that our policemen can do absolutely anything to any of us, for no reason, with no consequences.

Thanks, Tony.

On the other hand, if you’re poor and/or dark…

… you are shit out of luck in Tony’s OC. Take the case of poor Dwayne McKinny (now deceased.)   Wrongly convicted in 1982 by a younger Rackauckas for a murder and robbery in an Orange Burger King (the killer was a black guy and Dwayne was the first black guy they came across) he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole – Tony had wanted the death penalty.  But in 2000 the real killer was found and Dwayne was freed after 18 years.  Finding Dwayne to be gracious and forgiving, new DA Rackauckas got him to do a photo shoot with him for his 2002 re-election campaign, while secretly telling the state AG’s office that he still believed Dwayne was guilty, hence blocking the $100 a day in compensation he would have had coming.  What a guy.

Or take the case of poor James Ochoa, also wrongly convicted by Rackauckas for an armed robbery/carjacking in what Moxley called “a catalog of sloppy police work, callous prosecutors, indifferent judges and a brazen contempt for exculpatory evidence.” Tony tried to give the innocent man 50 years in prison, of which he served a year and a half before the actual robber was found.  Most disturbingly, (especially for a DA who has commandeered the county’s DNA database) when Tony’s prosecutors discovered that the DNA evidence cleared James, they tried to cover it up.

The goal apparently being, when prosecuting someone who’s poor and represented by a public defender, to SHOOT FOR THE STARS and get not the fairest sentence but the MOST EXTREME POSSIBLE, a favored method is to pile charge upon absurd charge, enhancement upon enhancement, hoping enough will stick to lock the poor bastard up and throw away the key.  And now I’m talking about folks who actually DID do something wrong, but not THAT bad!

Take the case of poor Jesus Aguirre – how did this 16-year old end up getting LIFE in Pelican Bay prison, where he STILL languishes (and I write him letters) – when fairness would have dictated a couple years in jail for being a JUVENILE ACCESSORY to ASSAULT WITH A DEADLY WEAPON?  Well, Tony’s prosecutors used three magical steps: 

  1. convincing the jury that Jesus had a terrible CRIMINAL HISTORY with gang enhancements (in actuality consisting of nothing more than bicycle infractions, chalking on the sidewalk, and tagging along on a joyride);
  2. charging the handing over to a friend of a gun as “attempted murder”(even though the victim suffered only minor abrasions from the birdshot in the gun, didn’t press charges, Jesus looked on askance asking his friend why he shot the dude, and no charges have been filed against the actual shooter even though everybody knows who it is but they’re afraid of him *coughMartinSolorio*);
  3. and then, since ALL THAT – attempted murder with gang enhancements – is so damn heinous, step 3 was to charge the goofy 16-year old as an adult.  Done!  Life in prison.  Par for the course.

Take the case of … shit … tens of thousands of young poor men and women clogging our jails for probably much longer than they should be there if at all.  The reason we know all about Paul Lucas is because he’s our friend and politically active;  read my series on him if you want a colorful account of how “justice” is dispensed to the poor in this County.  Dying to throw the book at this smart-alecky but sickly medical marijuana collective owner, they tried hard to frame his perfectly legal ownership of four (unloaded, safely stored) firearms as some kind of “firearm enhancement to drug sales” that could have got him four years in jail … for practically nothing.  Failing that, they gave him the worst they could for the unfortunate possession of a tiny lump of speed he had confiscated from his tweeker girlfriend and locked away – a couple months in Lacy and now a year of probation.  He should have got nothing, this should have been thrown out.  Paul was not a threat to anyone, and didn’t even use OR sell speed.  But our “justice” system, under DA Tony Rackauckas, found him dangerous enough to waste about $47,000 protecting you and me from Paul Lucas.  Thanks, Tony.  Ka-CHING!

Screw the Constitution, this will LOOK good!

Now I’d like to point out the remarkable traits the following two otherwise dissimilar Rackauckas projects share, because those traits speak volumes about “T-Rack,” his character and his seriousness:  The gang injunction he slapped on the OVC neighborhood of Orange back in 2009, and the banning of sex offenders from OC parks.

  1. They both SOUND, at first blush, as though he is PROTECTING us – from scary gangbangers, and from disgusting pedophiles.
  2. Even if they hadn’t been overturned, they wouldn’t have accomplished anything in the way of “protecting” us, as the OVC area is a low-crime neighborhood (albeit one into which Chapman University wants to expand), and sexual predators are already banned from parks by state law;
  3. Both initiatives were declared unconstitutional and/or unnecessary;
  4. He wasted millions of your taxpayer dollars and mine defending them;
  5. And yet he boasts of both these “accomplishments” on the campaign trail.  Two initiatives that looked good, that would however have been useless (and unjust) gestures, that were declared unconstitutional, that wasted our money, and that were utter faceplants.  And now he brags about those as he runs for office.  How stupid does he think Orange County voters are?  Well… how stupid ARE we?

(pic from the Weekly)

The OVC Gang Injunction Faceplant, on which I discoursed extensively and entertainingly, is particularly maddening.  Here’s what he was defending:  Certain interests – Chapman University and maybe also the City of Orange – wanted to clear out an old, distinguished, Hispanic neighborhood.  The traditional, if unjust, tool for doing that would be a gang injunction.  But it was impossible to find enough people there with a criminal record, it just wasn’t that bad of a neighborhood.  So the authorities widened their net absurdly, naming off 115 young people mostly minors and mostly with no records, some of them straight A students, just to make their case more forcefully.  The outrageous thing is that, had they been successful, had the neighborhood not improbably fought back and the courts made the right decision all the way up to the 9th circuit, dozens of innocent kids would have been stuck with a gang label for life.  Screaming injustice.  I feel THIS ALONE is worth kicking Tony’s ass out the door.  This man knows jack shit about JUSTICE???

I can’t finish this piece without mention of a few other HUGE T-Rack faceplants:  How about how he’s now unable to go for a death penalty for confessed Seal Beach mass murderer Scott Dekraii as he would like to… because Scott’s clever attorney discovered Tony’s and Sheriff Sandy’s dirty secret project of illegally using paid-off, lying jailhouse informants?  Again, no respect for actual law and the Constitution – Faceplant and Own Goal.

Another thing Tony loves to brag on is his successful $16 million suit against Toyota for “concealing facts” about a recent recall.  You may also “recall” that Toyota has just uprooted their home operations from California and moved off to Texas.  OC Politics’ “Joe Hill” makes a compelling case that the two stories are connected – that Rackauckas helped drive this huge corporation, with all its jobs, out of the Golden State.  This is WELL WORTH READING.

And what seems to be Tony’s favorite project of all is his massive DNA database – bigger than any other in California – and not usable in most cases because the samples are taken from misdemeanor suspects who pay $75 and “spit” to beat their rap.  Just like with the Feds’ unlimited spying, it seems that the larger this database gets, the more unwieldy and useless it is for actually solving any crimes, and it also raises the expected concerns with civil libertarians like attorney David Haas.  “Is he one of those people who believes the government needs to know all about each of us?” I asked, or something along those lines, I forget.  But Haas sneered back, “Ah, Rackauckas doesn’t believe anything.  He’s just a politician.”

Finally, sweet Cronyism.

Rackauckas’ entire DA tenure is typified by the vice of cronyism – friends exchanging favors, having each other’s backs, covering for each other, and engaging in revenge and punishment when friends are slighted. This is not a desirable characteristic in a major county’s top law enforcement officer.  But in the spirit of wrapping things up here, I’m just going to mention two episodes in Tony’s cronyist career.

Early on in Tony’s DA tenure – 2003 – he angered many of his hardworking employees by elevating Susan Kang Schroeder, the catty wife of his longtime ally GOP bigwig Mike Schroeder (now divorced) to the top category of “Grade IV Prosecutor” while she really just functioned (as she still does now) as press secretary.  This raised her pay to over $125,000 a year, higher than many much harder working and better-qualified prosecutors, and caused a lot of bitterness, particularly during a time when money was tight, budgets were getting cut, and folks were getting laid off.  Susan’s main qualities were, and have been, loyalty to Tony, feisty snark, and vengefulness.  Since we’ve become aware of his desire to hand the office over to her whenever he retires (which could be soon after this 72-year old wins re-election Tuesday) we’ve paid closer attention to her.  And dude.  No.  She knows nothing.  Just the fact that he has been considering that is enough reason to vote against him.  Think Sarah Palin, “one heartbeat away.”

John S Williams and Peggi Buff, in the glory days at the Public Administrator’s office.

Skip forward nearly a decade, and one of the OC’s livelier and more entertaining politicians, the mercurial Todd Spitzer, accidentally hit the dark side of Rackauckas’ cronyism.  (See the classic, “When Scumbags Collide.”)  This was in 2010 during the misrule of the Worst Public Administrator Ever, John S Williams. Todd, who was at that point Rackauckas’ second-in-command and heir apparent, made the mistake of calling that office, upset and complaining, not knowing that he was bitching at Tony’s fiancee Peggi Buff, who was in turn second-in-command to Williams, also a close crony of Tony’s.  And so Todd was immediately, summarily fired for his effrontery.

It was all a little comical in retrospect.  Todd quickly reverted to, well, as I wrote:

“…Spitzer’s gone from being:

  1. A Jewish firebrand decrying the corruption of T-Rack and the Schroeders and threatening the former with electoral challenge;  to:
  2. Spending 18 months as a loyal assistant prosecutor to the same crowd, “converting to Christianity” and fully expecting to be T-Rack’s anointed successor;  to:
  3. Now, after his sudden firing for asking the wrong questions of T-Rack ally John Williams’ office, becoming an aggrieved critic once again of the crowd’s corruption.  (And perhaps even once again Jewish?  Moxley doesn’t ask.)”

So many of us were excited back then at the prospect of the fiery if imperfect Spitzer (who’s since become Supervisor) with his fabled “million-dollar warchest” FINALLY giving Tony a run for his money – Tony who ran with NO OPPONENT in both 2006 and 2010. To hear Todd talk in the heat of late 2010, Rackauckas was the most disgusting, useless, and corrupt DA, a very blight on the county… and many of us enthusiastically agreed!

Well, it looks like the Spitzer worm has turned once more; he has chosen NOT to run this year after all; he won’t talk to me but sullenly muttered to my friend Paul Lucas that “It is not my time yet” – a creepy robotic line I have heard several frustrated Republican politicians utter over the years.

Hey, that reminds me, have I mentioned yet:  My friend Greg Diamond is running against this Worse-Than-No-DA DA.  Because nobody else has the guts to!  Okay.  Carry on.  Vern out.

 


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist in Orange County. Performs regularly with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem, and at regular concerts at the Huntington Beach Central Library.