These might be the most expensive mug shots in history.
This past week, Orange County taxpayers officially – and very quietly - were put on the hook for about $8,300 because county officials failed to turn over photos of mid-level law enforcement managers working for Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.
The legal bill was triggered after Rackauckas’ shop rejected a law enforcement union’s request for headshots of managers who had received poor ratings from their subordinates in a recent union survey report (including headshot photos) of managers.
Once county supervisors met to consider the lawsuit last Tuesday, they folded…and quickly.
In contrast, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens – whose managers scored well in the rank and file survey – cooperated with the request from the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs for head shots of department managers without even requiring a public records request.
Under Hutchens, the entire request was handled as a courtesy.
Yet in quite stunning and contrasting fashion, the office charged with enforcing the state’s Public Records Act (DA Rackauckas) basically told the Sheriff’s deputies union to pound sand – refusing numerous verbal requests for photos to the point that formal PRA requests were required.
Then those were formally denied.
The union eventually filed suit. And after apparently reconsidering their position, the DA released the photos.
None of Rackauckas’ army of PR officials would speak to my questions on this issue.
Yet DA professional prosecutors argue – behind the cloak of off-the-record and just before press deadline – that their delaying efforts were really aimed at protecting rank-and-file cops from the uncomfortable scenario that Hells Angels bikers could show up at the local Sheriff’s substation and ask for a PRA of every beat cop’s ID photo.
Their argument goes that DA officials were busy trying to research the issue when the deputies union – close to Rackauckas’ chief rival Supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer – prematurely pulled the trigger on a lawsuit.
I thought it was fair to put the concerns raised privately by DA officials to deputies’ union president Tom Dominguez.
He, much like our own attorneys, balked at the rationale.
“They release information routinely without hesitation on our deputies or any cop facing any kind of investigation,” Dominguez said. “And in most cases, they do it without a press inquiry. While I appreciate where they are coming from, that doesn’t hold water with us.”
Regarding the balancing act between the public’s right to know and threats like the Hells Angels, Dominguez said “we deal with it,” he says. “Under the law, there is a requirement this information has to be released.”
Dominguez also said the argument just doesn’t hold up.
“I don’t see a group of high-level managers being on the same level as a street cop. I just don’t see it,” he said.
He especially balked when he saw a group photo with managers striking what he termed “Mod Squad poses” in a public biennial report put out by the DA.
Cal Aware General Counsel Terry Francke, who is also Voice of OC's open government consultant, labeled the DA’s initial legal response to our own public records request for the photos as “deliriously irrelevant” and doubted the DA’s position would have held up in court.
Just as we were gearing up to litigate the issue, AOCDS stepped up on their own to enforce their own rights and defend the public's right to know in court against the district attorney.
“Always willing to go above and beyond,” said Dominguez referring to AOCDS’ commitment to the rule of law.
Spitzer – who this past week was the sole vote against a settlement with AOCDS during supervisors’ closed session – was fuming at Rackauckas’ office saying it’s another costly mistake taxpayers have to cover.
“This is just another example of the typical Orange County District Attorney playing political games without any regard to the taxpayer consequences because they are not writing the check. The DA office clearly knew that the results of the survey were going to show his management, except one, had earned miserable marks by the rank and file. And so this was the DA way of saying, if your people will say bad things about us, we won’t cooperate. Irresponsive of the results of the survey, which was miserable, they still have to follow the law. If any entity should understand about following the law and enforcement, it should be DA’s investigations bureau.”
“They were playing games with the photos,” Spitzer said.
And now all of us get to pay.
How the bill gets paid will be an interesting pending question going into next month’s budget deliberations.
County spokeswoman Jean Pasco told me the CEO’s office would be recommending the money come out of the district attorney’s budget as opposed to the general fund.
That’s the general direction the board of supervisors gave during their last retreat where they questioned the current Rackauckas doctrine where the DA budget gets to keep winnings from class action lawsuits -- like the massive Toyota suit -- but puts off costly losses on things like gang injunctions and public records lawsuits to the general fund.
Some see that as a quiet way of masking losses.
Masking losses seems to be more and more the norm for Rackauckas. There is the scandal over DA and Sheriff's ongoing jailhouse snitch program; intensifying calls – now a ballot initiative – for independent campaign finance regulation; and questions about gang injunctions and sex offender ordinances that are being overturned and triggering costly lawsuit payouts for taxpayers.
This week, I heard from a credible source who was outside last Tuesday’s closed session that when county supervisors met to consider the legal settlement with AOCDS, DA officials were pressing supervisors to resist a settlement.
Prosecutors even sent a dissenting email memo to county supervisors, which County Counsel cloaked in secrecy by declaring it an attorney-client privileged communication (I know because I asked for the memo and was denied).
In essence, DA officials wanted to fight the union and make their argument directly to supervisors.
They weren’t even allowed into the room.
Now that’s a troubling vote of no confidence.