Despite scandals and doubts, Orange County district attorney wants another term, and a shot at vindication
For nearly two decades, Tony Rackauckas has reigned over Orange County law enforcement as district attorney.
He’s survived allegations of cronyism and mismanagement while also winning praise for prosecuting police officers he accused of beating a homeless man to death in Fullerton.
But none of those firestorms can compare to the jailhouse informant scandal that has swirled around the county’s criminal justice system in recent years.
The snitch scandal has led to retrials in a number of murder cases, caused a judge to bar Rackauckas’ office from prosecuting a confessed mass murderer and sparked state and federal investigations into the Sheriff’s Department and the district attorney’s office. Not since the fall of former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona nearly a decade ago has local law enforcement been under such scrutiny.
Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens announced last month that she would not seek another term. Rackauckas fully intends to run for reelection in 2018, in what political observers think will be a referendum on the snitch scandal and Rackauckas’ controversial tenure.
That list of allegations might serve as a knockout blow for a politician in other parts of California. But in Orange County, a fiercely pro-law enforcement Republican enclave, the litany of scandals have barely grazed Rackauckas’ chin. His reputation as a hard-charging lawman in a region that’s partial to cops has led some local political experts to think he will emerge from the latest fracas unscathed.
County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, a well-funded Republican foe who has called for the federal government to take over Rackauckas’ operation, stands ready to oppose him next year. But there are doubts about whether Spitzer can succeed.
“The question that Orange County voters and residents will be asking next year is, do they feel safe?” said Jon Fleischman, former executive director of the state Republican Party. “Todd Spitzer will run, and he’ll raise a bunch of money, but whether or not people fire their law enforcement officials comes to that question. Most people don’t read the newspaper or watch the news. If they feel safe, they don’t want change.”
“The thought of Todd running for D.A. has been the biggest boon to Tony,” said state Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa), who said he doesn’t see either man as fit for the office. “Tony should not be D.A. anymore. He should not have been D.A. for a long time.”
The field for the 2018 district attorney’s race is far from set, but many expect it come down to a contest between Rackauckas and Spitzer, a former state assemblyman and ex-assistant district attorney who has a long-running feud with the county’s top prosecutor. Both are household names among Republicans in Orange County, but most pundits think Rackauckas would have the edge in an internal GOP fight unless the current scandals worsen.
“The recent news about the troubles in the D.A. office would need to go to another level in order for the local GOP to view Rackauckas as being too toxic a candidate to support,” said Stephen Stambough, a professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton.
Rackauckas last won reelection with 73.3% of the vote in 2014, and recently benefited from a grand jury report that dismissed allegations of a covert informant network as a “myth.”
Rackauckas’ campaign manager, Dave Gilliard, said he expects the grand jury’s take on the informant scandal to resonate more with voters than the continued accusations being made by local defense attorneys.
“There is a lot of noise around it, but at the end of the day, the grand jury labeled it a witch hunt,” he said.
Rackauckas hailed the report as vindication, but the fallout from the allegations continues to rock the county. Weeks after the grand jury report was released, an appellate court upheld a ruling vacating the conviction of a man accused of murdering a pregnant woman, based on prosecutors’ failure to disclose details about a jailhouse informant at trial.
Through a spokesman, Rackauckas said his office stands ready to retry the case.
The snitch scandal is far from the only controversy dogging Rackauckas these days. Last year, a panel of legal experts commissioned by Rackauckas found he had created a culture in the district attorney’s office where subordinates feared bringing troubling information to their boss. That report also said some prosecutors had developed a “win at all costs mentality,” doggedly pursuing convictions even in the face of possible violations of defendants’ constitutional rights, including the informant scandal.
Last month, three former district attorney’s investigators also made separate claims accusing Rackauckas and his circle of top prosecutors of interfering in cases against his political allies and covering up misconduct within the Fullerton Police Department.
Rackauckas and Spitzer declined to be interviewed for this story. But both have long histories in Orange County that could help or hurt them in what could be an ugly political clash.
Rackauckas began his career as a rising star in the district attorney’s homicide unit in the 1980s, and gained political capital by campaigning against a state Supreme Court justice opposed to death penalty sentences. He was appointed to the judiciary in 1990, where he earned some notoriety for showing leniency to nonviolent defendants facing lengthy jail terms under the state’s “three strikes” law.
As a teenager, Rackauckas was part of a Long Beach gang and wound up spending some nights in juvenile detention facilities. Rackauckas chose to drop out of high school and join the Army to straighten himself out. After his stint with the armed services, the future district attorney enrolled in law school.
Rackauckas won his first term as district attorney in 1998, riding a wave of frustration with his predecessor, Mike Capizzi, who found himself in the crosshairs of the county’s Republican party after he began to focus on public corruption cases.
A 2002 grand jury report accused him of interfering in prosecutions against campaign donors, earning an outright dismissal for one ally and a severely reduced sentence for another.
“Everybody kind of coalesced around Tony, but almost from the get-go, he was getting grand jury reports about his poor management,” Moorlach said. “Here we are almost 20 years later, and we’re still getting reports about his poor management.”
A two-time county supervisor and former state assemblyman, Spitzer has a record with its own blemishes. He was fired from the district attorney’s office in 2010 after Rackauckas accused him of misconduct. The two have been in a near constant war of words since. In May, Spitzer wrote a letter to U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions calling for an immediate federal takeover of Rackauckas’ office, which he described as “probably the most disrespected district attorney executive team in California.”
Spitzer, a reserve Los Angeles police officer, also was involved in a bizarre incident that saw him handcuff a man who was “preaching the word of God” at a Foothills Ranch restaurant in 2015. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department decided not to bring charges against Spitzer or the man he handcuffed in that incident.
Some also have expressed concerns about his management style. A lawsuit by a former employee accused Spitzer of having a “15-minute rule,” meaning he would dock the pay of workers who did not respond to his text messages within that time frame.
To some, the coming race is less a referendum on the scandals surrounding Rackauckas and more an indictment of county politics in general.
“Something has to improve. This is an elected position,” Moorlach said.
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