Orange County Dist. Atty. Anthony J. Rackauckas on Friday asked state prosecutors to take over the election misconduct case against Republican Assemblyman Scott Baugh, placing the politically charged issue in the hands of the new Democratic attorney general.
Rackauckas, a former judge who took office earlier this month, said he cannot handle the case because of a conflict of interest involving past discussions he had with two fellow judges about Baugh's situation.
Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer would take over the prosecution of Baugh, who is accused of committing felony and misdemeanor campaign reporting violations during his 1995 special election.
Senior Assistant Atty. Gen. Gary Schons said Friday that the office has not decided whether to proceed with the prosecution. The decision could hinge on a Los Angeles political corruption case now pending in the California Supreme Court, which may set a legal precedent with bearing on the Baugh trial, he said.
"These charges [against Baugh] may not be subject to criminal prosecution, and the reasoning of the [Supreme Court] could well apply in this case," Schons said.
All sides agree that Rackauckas' action represents a major step toward resolving the case, which has been mired in motions and appeals for three years.
Baugh was indicted in 1996 but has steadfastly maintained his innocence, accusing Rackauckas' predecessor, Mike Capizzi, of malicious prosecution. Baugh said Friday that he has no problems with Lockyer taking over.
"I'm thrilled to have anybody but Capizzi," Baugh said. "I really think Bill Lockyer is a fair and just man."
Friday's announcement was not a complete surprise considering that Rackauckas was supported in his recent election victory by several Baugh backers.
Rackauckas often accused Capizzi during the campaign of misdirecting precious office resources toward political prosecutions that he said would be better handled by the state Fair Political Practices Commission. However, he never mentioned the Baugh case by name.
Rackauckas insisted Friday that his decision to pull out of the case was based not on political ties but on conversations he had with two judges who had handled the Baugh matter.
"I had no way of knowing that the Baugh case would still be pending" when he took office, Rackauckas said.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Francisco P. Briseno last year granted Baugh's motion to recuse Capizzi's office, saying prosecutors engaged in "grave misconduct" in pursuing the indictment against him. He also accused Capizzi's office of trying to rush a grand jury indictment of Baugh just days before Baugh's primary election in 1996. Capizzi appealed the rulings in an effort to stay on the case, and the appeal was pending up to and past his election defeat.
An original 22-count indictment against Baugh was dismissed after a different judge ruled that prosecutors had manipulated the grand jury. Capizzi's office then refiled 18 new counts against Baugh, six of which later were dismissed by yet another judge.
The remaining counts include two felony perjury counts and 10 misdemeanor violations of the Political Reform Act stemming from Baugh's election in 1995 to replace recalled Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress). Allen was recalled by Republicans angry that she had been elected speaker of the Assembly with Democratic votes.
Baugh said the remaining case rests on the testimony of his former campaign manager, who has declared under oath that he lied to prosecutors about Baugh's involvement in the misreporting.
Schons said state prosecutors have several options in addition to trying the case, including negotiating a settlement, dropping the charges or referring the matter to the Fair Political Practices Commission.