Santana: Can We Really Trust OC Leaders to Police Themselves?

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas last week put on an interesting clinic on leadership.

After his top aide – Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder – got called out for failing to disclose her own economic interests (something pretty standard for top DA executive team members across So Cal, ie: decision makers), Rackauckas solved the stunning oversight with a unique solution.

Expand the filing requirements for all prosecutors in Orange County, from 21 people to 275.

Prosecutors apparently offer great cover.

The move allows Schroeder to quickly shuffle into compliance amidst a crowd.

It also allows a powerful DA to say he didn’t respond to legitimate questions raised by a news outlet (Voice of OC) or a citizen complaint (campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle) but instead just rethought disclosure and went with a higher standard.

The solution, it appears, is to shift focus onto your rank-and-file prosecutors.

Now that’s leadership.

It will indeed be super interesting to see what types of side jobs and investments these prosecutors are engaged in – along with what kinds of gifts they get.

I’m particularly interested to see what, if anything, Schroeder discloses about the private jet to Las Vegas she took last year with DA investigator Damon Tucker.

Tucker politely declined to answer questions about their jet ride when our reporter, Tracy Wood, asked him about the flight in her recent expose´detailing the apparent music industry aspirations of Schroeder.

Tucker is also friends with musician Scott Foster – who founded a music promotion business with Schroeder just before the DA got into the business of hosting promotional concerts…where Foster played lead guitar and sang vocals.

Of course, taxpayers had no idea the lead act’s front man was a partner of Schroeder's.

That’s why such economic disclosure forms are required in the first place.

So we the public, know.

The story being floated – of course, off-record - is that Rackauckas and Schroeder never gave disclosure any kind of thought when she was elevated from press officer to chief of staff in 2010.

It’s kind of stunning that top officials at the office tasked with enforcing all sorts of transparency laws – the Public Records Act, the Brown Act and economic disclosures – didn’t even think about the issue when it came to their own interests.

Even sadder is when they were called out on that, they responded by imposing a new filing requirement on 274 prosecutors, just to help Rackauckas and Schroeder cloak any admission of an oversight.

And even more troubling is that the guy tasked with spackling up the cracking façade of integrity at the DA’s office is the head of the public integrity unit – Senior Assistant DA Mike Lubinski – whose character is very highly rated throughout Orange County.

When asked by my former Orange County Register colleague Martin Wisckol about the change, Lubinski wouldn’t discuss whether it was prompted by our stories, Grindle’s complaint or the Register’s own inquiry.

The only comment about the motivations behind this new policy was a brief statement given to Wisckol that he quoted as saying, “After reviewing the policy and the legal requirements, the OCDA has decided to expand the list to all prosecutors including the chief of staff, similar to the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office model, starting with this reporting year.”

Interesting to see that the DA will allow Schroeder to start reporting her economic interests now, as opposed to back to 2010 when she was made chief of staff or even earlier.

Wonder if county supervisors will agree to that approach when the whole package comes back to them?

Now, I’m not necessarily a fan of ethics commissions.

I prefer lean, effective government.

Doesn’t make sense to change out a car engine because a spark plug won’t do its job.

You just change out the spark plug, or in this case, political leader… at the next election.

Yet in Orange County, it seems more and more that we citizens are facing a systemic attempt to short-circuit any kind of real accountability for our locally elected leaders.

Just witness the embarrassing show that has become the county’s DNA collection efforts. Last week, county supervisors got into an ugly debate about the integrity and cost of duel DNA collection efforts by the Sheriff and DA.

The extra costs are part of a mysterious clash between former Sheriff Mike Carona and Rackauckas going back to 2007.

The resulting political deal ending that Sheriff-DA duel set up a junta (made up of the DA, Sheriff and County CEO) that would oversee an official DNA collection program where taxpayers got to pay for two separate DNA labs.

County supervisors – most elected after the 2007 secret deal – are themselves now asking uncomfortable questions about how this approach was struck and how long taxpayers have to keep paying extra.

There’s no solution to that yet, just ugly debates from the supervisors’ dais.

In the meantime, we taxpayers get to keep paying double.

Just like we get to pay for a totally secret set of lawyers who now investigate official corruption allegations in the wake of the 2012 Carlos Bustamante scandal – where a GOP Hispanic councilman from Santa Ana was given a sweet job in the OC Public Works department and apparently spent much of his time focusing on sex with his subordinates.

Bustamante now faces a trial on charges he was committing sex crimes against those female workers. He denies any criminal wrongdoing.

Keep in mind that six months before Bustamante was arrested in July 2012, Orange County supervisors had quietly allowed him to resign with a 90-day severance check and a confidentiality agreement.

It was only after a mysterious internal audit report (which we’ve never seen) that the issue was forced back into a February 2012 closed session – and an automatic referral was triggered to the DA.

Voice of OC had to go to court – eventually winning a judgment of more than $120,000 in legal fees against the County of Orange – just to get a few public records shedding light on official decision making during that crisis.

Now, as part of the post-Bustamante openness reforms touted by county supervisors, complaints about high-ranking officials go to lawyers quietly hired by the county to investigate allegations.

And guess what?

In the three years since Bustamante, none of these secret legal investigations has resulted in any kind of sanctions or released any public findings of wrongdoing by any top county executive or elected leader.

We’ve never even seen copies of complaints, nor any kind of detailed status report about investigations, conclusions or sanctions.

Again and again, the standard in OC for official corruption probes is stall, stall and stall.

In this kind of environment, it’s easy to understand how citizens may have to institute some sort of independent accountability mechanism for local government.