After a two-week delay amidst resistance from county supervisors and Republican operatives, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is coming back to seek authorization for the establishment of a public corruption unit inside his office.
“We put it back on,” said Rackauckas’ chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder, referring to the agenda item on today’s weekly county supervisors’ meeting where Rackauckas is expected to publicly argue his case.
“We’ve had a major increase in these types of inquiries and requests for investigations on these types of cases,” Kang Schroeder said. “These are extremely labor intensive.”
For example, Schroeder noted, the Carlos Bustamante case required the attention of two attorneys and two investigators.
“We need more people in that special prosecutions unit to handle these types of cases,” she said.
Yet earlier this month, the office apparently pulled the item quietly after some questions were raised.
Orange County isn’t a place that enjoys watching special prosecutors run around after elected officials. Rackauckas’ predecessor, Michael Capizzi, was roundly criticized for having an overly aggressive approach toward public sector crime.
There are indications that Republican activists have already reached out to supervisors to voice their concerns.
Schroeder acknowledged the concerns, noting that “there are certain people who raised concerns about the title because they were afraid that we’re going to be going around and rounding up people.”
Yet Schroeder said seeking authorization for the positions is just a matter of the district attorney responding to an upswing in cases that are being brought forward.
“It’s a matter of us responding,” Schroeder said.
Nonetheless, there are questions about how an estimated $1.1 million will be found for additional salary costs for attorneys, investigators and staff. While Rackauckas’ first draft included the million-dollar price tag, this latest version is more muted on costs. Schroeder was also vague on cost details.
That's not the case for Board of Supervisors Chairman John Moorlach, who said he’s “not convinced” a public integrity unit is needed.
“What I told Tony is you’re not my only kid,” Moorlach said about the delicate balancing act that is the county budget.
“So if I give you more staffing, what am I going to hear from the sheriff, the public defender, Probation? … Everything’s got to be in some kind of balance. You’ve got to make the argument, and I’ve got to make sure I don’t open the door for others to make the same request.”
While Moorlach said the local economy might be on the upswing, there are big questions about where to put the extra resources. He questions whether it’s time to strengthen cash reserves or reimburse other county departments who have helped public safety stave off cuts in recent years.
“These are a lot of philosophical questions that need to be asked,” Moorlach said. “A good debate would be healthy.”
Supervisor Shawn Nelson also isn’t an instant fan of a public integrity unit but expects “we’ll work something out.”
Nelson notes, “We’ve always had someone do this,” referring to district attorney public corruption investigations. Whether there’s a spike in public corruption cases, “that may or may not be,” Nelson said.
Nelson figures it’s up to the district attorney as an elected official to figure out what his priorities will be.
“I don’t know we won’t give extra money if the workload has gone up,” Nelson added.
Nelson questioned why he needs to approve the funding as opposed to just looking at the district attorney’s expenses during the next quarterly budget update. “Does it matter that it’s for mortgage fraud or gangs? … I don’t need to get into the weeds.”
“He’s got to justify his department’s entire budget,” Nelson said.