A Public Display of Disaffection

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Thursday, October 21, 2010 | Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and his former protege Todd Spitzer lashed out at each other Wednesday in another round of what has become a singularly bizarre and drawn-out political divorce.

In dueling news conferences, the two lobbed accusations of indiscretions, ethical lapses and political maneuvering.

It might be just the beginning.

While Rackauckas just won another four-year term, some are already talking about this as the start of the 2014 campaign for district attorney. In fact, Rackauckas made it a point Wednesday to tell reporters that he’s running for re-election in 2014.

His main campaign platform, as of Wednesday, is to keep the office away from Spitzer.

“I think what I’ve seen is that Todd’s judgment is interfered with by his desire to improve his image all the time,” Rackauckas said.

“I don’t’ feel he should be trusted to make decisions that could be life and death decisions … that should be decided strictly on the basis of right and wrong and the law.”

Spitzer, a former county supervisor and state assemblyman with a large unspent campaign account, has been more guarded about his political future.

However, he is already mentioned as a potential front-runner for his old county Board of Supervisors seat, which is up in 2012.

That means that Spitzer could actually end up in charge of Rackauckas’ budget, or at least become one of five votes that decides that budget. That kind of move also would put him in striking distance for a district attorney run in 2014 with a healthy fundraising base.

It also potentially pits him against the political influence of Orange County Republican heavyweight Michael Schroeder.

His wife, Susan Kang Schroeder, is Rackauckas’ chief of staff. She has already gone a couple of rounds with Spitzer, who accuses her of conspiring to get him fired and take over as district attorney.

On Wednesday, all three players talked openly about how things got to where they are. Their stories, and allegations, cast an ugly light onto the politics of the district attorney’s office.

T-Rack Swings First

Rackauckas fired his shots from a conference room in the District Attorney’s Office, surrounded by his chief of staff, Kang Schroeder, and three other top deputies. They spent nearly three hours outlining a litany of reasons why Spitzer was fired.

After eight weeks of watching Spitzer get attention in the media after his firing, Rackauckas said felt he needed to respond publicly and tell the story of how it all went wrong.

“He’s gotten attention,” he said. “It’s important to set the record straight and let people know what happened.”

Rackauckas described Spitzer as a megalomaniac in the office who constantly undermined his supervisors, criticized managers and made ethically questionable decisions.

Spitzer responded with his own hours-long news conference at the Orange County Employees Association headquarters. He denied any wrongdoing in office and in turn argued that Rackauckas and his chief of staff executed a political hit on him.

“It was a setup from the get-go,” he said.

The two public displays confirmed a host of strange ties.

For example, Kang Schroeder admitted to reporters Wednesday that she did speak with Public Administrator/Public Guardian John Williams the night before he issued his now famous news release criticizing Spitzer for calling his agency. Kang Schroeder has, from the beginning, denied helping Williams write that news release.

Rackauckas also told reporters that he was uncomfortable having to confront Spitzer over his calls to Williams’ shop because his fiancee, Peggi Buff, is the second in command at the agency.

“I gave some passing thought to not doing anything, just to let this go because of that,” he said. “I thought it would be an issue. But things come up too regularly with Todd, and I just don’t know what the next thing might be. And I didn’t think it would be a good thing to wait for it.”

Rackauckas and his team of deputies said that Spitzter, from his earliest days working in the office, tried to undermine Rackauckas by spreading rumors that he would be stepping down soon and appointing Spitzer.

“Todd would constantly talk to people that he was the next district attorney,” said Senior Deputy District Attorney Joe D’Augustino.

The list of sins went on to include the fact that Spitzer had delivered a bottle of wine to a court clerk, asked investigators to serve drinks for a “furlough party” he threw, and made one prosecutor cry on a high-profile case he handled.

Spitzer Counters

Across the street, Spitzer in turn stood with his wife, Jaime, telling reporters about how his firing was a political setup.

As his time went on, Spitzer said Rackauckas and Kang Schroeder became more nervous about him being a threat to the “empire.”

He said that Kang Schroeder pleaded with him to keep her on as chief of staff and support her for district attorney in later elections.

Spitzer alleges that before this year’s filing deadline for candidates closed on March 13, he was in good standing. After that date — which was the last opportunity for him to challenge Rackauckas — everything changed. He wasn’t needed.

“Suddenly, my entire professional career was subject to scrutiny,” Spitzer said.

In the laundry list of items that the district attorney lobbed, Spitzer said, “there’s nothing in here that was inappropriate, overreaching or had disregard to my duty as a prosecutor.”

Indeed, Spitzer rallied against Rackauckas for his own record as a prosecutor, noting that he sent one innocent man to jail, who was later released and compensated by the county.

Spitzer pointed out the case of James Ochoa, whose story was featured prominently in the OC Weekly. Ochoa was wrongfully convicted using DNA data that Spitzer alleges Rackauckas ordered to be altered. Ochoa also was released and paid a settlement.

Spitzer was gearing up to challenge Rackauckas in 2006 as a sitting California assemblyman. He was persuaded by senior Republican leaders to wait his turn instead. Spitzer said officials pleaded with him to spare the country from a divisive district attorney race, just on the heels of contentious sheriff campaigns.

He agreed and in 2008 came to the district attorney’s office after leaving the Legislature.

Many observers told both men that their styles would never work. On Wednesday, the only thing that both seemed to agree on is how bad their judgment was in thinking the arrangement would turn out differently.

For example, Rackauckas — who has a low-key style — believes a district attorney should do the job in a “dispassionate way.”

Dispassionate is a word rarely associated with Spitzer.

Please contact Norberto Santana, Jr., directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org, and add your voice with a letter to the editor.


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