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For the first time in 20 years, O.C. district attorney faces serious challenge as votes tallied

For the first time in 20 years, O.C. district attorney faces serious challenge as votes tallied
Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, left, appears headed toward ousting longtime District Atty. Tony Rackauckas. (Los Angeles Times photos)

For two decades, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas has easily held his position as Orange County’s top prosecutor.

But on Wednesday, the day after the midterm election, it appeared that the controversial district attorney could very likely be unseated by his longtime public nemesis, Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer.

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With all precincts reporting, Spitzer led Rackauckas by nearly 6 percentage points, or more than 31,000 votes. But the county registrar cautioned that the outcome remained unclear because more than 400,000 ballots had yet to be counted.

The results signal the first serious challenge Rackauckas has faced during his 20 years as district attorney, at a time when his office is under intense scrutiny for the mishandling of high-profile criminal cases.

Spitzer’s campaign eagerly capitalized on the scandal. When reached by phone Wednesday, the former assemblyman was confident that he would ultimately clinch the position.

“I’m extremely pleased by the fact that Orange County voters understand there are serious problems in the district attorney’s office,” said Spitzer, 57. “Under my leadership, we’re going to play by the rules. We’re going to be ethical, honest and open prosecutors. We’re going to do what’s right every single time.”

Rackauckas did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The district attorney’s race was very vitriolic. In October, Rackauckas’ chief-of-staff proclaimed Spitzer had a “malignant soul” and would stop at nothing to gain political advantage.

Most recently, Spitzer accused Rackauckas of subverting the criminal justice system for political gain by sitting on a high-profile rape case until just before the election.

For the 75-year-old Rackauckas, this was just icing atop a layered cake of bad publicity. His office has been accused of illegally using jailhouse informants to obtain confessions, and in 2015 a criminal court judge removed the district attorney’s office from the murder trial of Scott Dekraai, who shot and killed his ex-wife and seven others at a Seal Beach salon in 2011.

The so-called “snitch scandal” resulted in reduced or thrown-out charges in other criminal cases and the retrial of several convicted killers. The district attorney’s office is now facing a civil lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Dekraai's attorney, Orange County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, has contended that the use of informants was a years-long violation of inmates’ rights. On Wednesday, Sanders said that while he does not share identical views with Spitzer when it comes to the criminal justice system, he believes the sitting supervisor could usher in a new era for the district attorney’s office.

“He emphasized throughout his campaign he will not tolerate misconduct by prosecutors or members of law enforcement,” Sanders said. “He now has the opportunity to carry out that promise and make the system far better for everyone.”

Paul Wilson, whose wife, Christy Lynn Wilson, was murdered by Dekraai, agreed that the district attorney’s office is in desperate need of fresh leadership.

“As a victim of violent crime, he never had my back — from day one,” Wilson said of Rackauckas. “In Tony’s office, they lied to my face.”

Wilson said he’s optimistic that Spitzer could spur reform, but that the office — which handles more than 60,000 cases a year and has an annual budget of about $145 million — still needs to be watched closely, regardless of who is leading it.

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Spitzer’s record is far from spotless. Last year, he settled a lawsuit for $150,000 with a former member of his staff who alleged several labor law violations, including working shifts of up to 24 hours.

And in 2015, Spitzer was criticized for carrying a loaded handgun into a Foothill Ranch Mexican restaurant and making a citizen’s arrest of a preacher, whom Spitzer said was suspiciously eyeing a knife. Officials found that Spitzer acted lawfully based on a perceived threat, but Rackauckas said the incident proved a lack of judgment. Spitzer, meanwhile, argued that his time as an LAPD reserve officer led to his reaction.

The feud between Spitzer and Rackauckas has deep roots. Spitzer worked as a prosecutor under Rackauckas for a year, and at one point appeared to be the incumbent’s eventual successor. But the two had a public falling out in 2010 when Rackauckas accused Spitzer of misconduct and fired him.

When Rackauckas last won reelection in 2014, with 73.3% of the vote, he said he wouldn’t run again — but he gave it another go, in part to keep Spitzer from taking the helm.

Rackauckas, appointed to the judiciary in 1990, gained a reputation for being lenient toward nonviolent defendants facing lengthy jail terms under the state’s three-strikes law. He’s also been a leader in the use of DNA analysis to apprehend violent criminals.

As a state lawmaker, Spitzer was closely tied to the victims' rights movement, and in 2008 led the campaign to pass Marsy’s law. He’s pledged that if elected, he will partner with nonprofits such as the ACLU to help reform the district attorney’s office.

Spitzer also ran on a platform of strengthening public safety. Throughout his campaign, he pointed to state data that show an uptick in violent crime in some Orange County cities between 2016 and 2017.

He said that if he is elected, he will retire from the county as district attorney.

“I ran for D.A. because I love being a prosecutor. It’s the only thing I want to do,” Spitzer said. “This isn’t a stepping stone.”

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