A former chief investigator at the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, who recently accused DA Tony Rackauckas of interfering in political corruption investigations, is now seeking records about the DA’s criminal probes of three high-profile elected officials: Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, county Supervisor Andrew Do, and state Sen. Janet Nguyen (R-Garden Grove).
Craig Hunter, a former Anaheim deputy police chief who led the DA’s investigations bureau from early 2014 until he was ousted last month, alleged in a legal claim this month that Rackauckas committed crimes and “interfered in political corruption criminal investigations.”
Hunter’s attorney followed up on the claim by making an expansive Public Records Act request to the DA’s office that focuses on specific investigations of Pulido, Do, and Nguyen that the DA ultimately declined to prosecute.
Those DA investigations surrounded a property swap between Pulido and a city contractor, allegations Do was illegally living outside the district he represents, claims Nguyen violated a conflict-of-interest law at CalOptima, and laundered contributions to Nguyen’s re-election campaign.
In a phone interview, Hunter’s attorney, Bradley Gage, would neither confirm nor deny whether his client alleges Rackauckas interfered with the investigations named in the request.
“I do not want to disclose confidential discovery,” Gage said. “However, as just a general proposition, my client was in a position to know about numerous investigations, and to disclose concerns that he had about several matters in the District Attorney’s office before the DA ever took any action against Craig.”
A District Attorney spokeswoman disputed claims that Rackauckas interfered in political corruption investigations, including the cases mentioned in Hunter’s records request.
“We’re in the business of prosecuting crimes, not committing them or covering them up,” said the spokeswoman, Michelle Van Der Linden. She said the DA’s office has received Hunter’s records request and is reviewing it.
The DA’s office has previously said Hunter’s legal claim contains “falsehoods and inaccuracies,” and that was it filed “clearly with the goal of trying to get money from Orange County Taxpayers.”
Pulido declined to comment when reached by phone Thursday. Do and Nguyen didn’t return phone messages seeking comment.
The public records request, received by the county clerk’s office Wednesday, seeks all records about the DA investigation of Pulido’s 2010 property swap with a city contractor and his subsequent vote to expand the vendor’s contract by more than $1 million. Just over a year before the vote, Pulido obtained a home from the vendor, Rupen Akoubian, for $230,000 less than what the county assessor determined was its fair market value.
In a city-commissioned report, former Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask found that Pulido likely committed felony crimes. But a year-and-a-half later, Rackauckas’ office disagreed, clearing Pulido of criminal wrongdoing in May 2015. To support its decision, the DA’s office pointed to an appraisal paid for by Pulido’s legal defense fund that offered sharply different property values from the county assessment.
Just before the announcement, a source familiar with the Pulido probe said the DA’s office failed to interview potential key witnesses at City Hall.
“If they had done a thorough investigation, that’s OK I can respect that,” the source said. “To say we’re not even going to do an investigation — they just stalled the whole thing out — to me that’s no good.”
The DA’s report disputed this, saying it had subpoenaed over 9,000 pages of documents and interviewed numerous witnesses. However, the only witnesses named in the DA’s report on its decision are the targets of the investigation and the Santa Ana city attorney.
In addition to the investigation records, Hunter is seeking all communications, including text messages and emails, between Rackauckas and Pulido since early 2012.
As Hunter’s request notes, communications through personal devices and accounts regarding public business are now subject to public records disclosure, due to a February ruling by the California Supreme Court.
The records request also seeks all records about the DA investigation of claims Do was illegally living outside the county supervisor district he represents. Rackauckas’ office announced in October 2015 it would not be charging Do due to insufficient evidence of a crime.
Additionally, Hunter’s request seeks all documents about the DA investigation of Nguyen for a vote she took on the CalOptima board that may have violated a state conflict-of-interest law, as well as the DA probe into the laundering of $13,000 in contributions to Nguyen’s election campaign when she was a county supervisor. CalOptima is the county health care provider for low income, disabled and elderly residents.
The DA cleared Nguyen in the conflict case in 2014. In the money laundering case, Son Truong Nguyen, who is not related to Janet Nguyen, was charged and convicted of 10 counts of unlawful contributions. He struck a plea deal in which he got probation, a $5,000 fine and 40 hours of community service instead of the up to one year in jail he was facing.
Separately from the corruption investigations, Hunter’s request seeks DA documents about the ongoing scandal over misuse of jailhouse informants, a 2002 Orange County Grand Jury report on conflicts of interest and mishandling of funds at the DA’s office, and communications between Rackauckas and Newport Beach businessman Patrick Di Carlo.
Under the California Public Records Act, the county is required to provide an initial response to Gage within 10 days of his request, in which it must either provide the records or declare more time is needed to process the request.
After retiring as Anaheim’s deputy police chief in 2012, Hunter joined Rackauckas’ office in early 2014 as the chief of the DA’s Bureau of Investigations, overseeing a team of about 240 employees, including over 140 sworn investigators.
But last month, Rackauckas suddenly announced Hunter and his second-in-command, Lou Gutierrez, were gone. The DA’s office said it was prohibited from saying why, but said the DA “will continue to take swift and appropriate action to maintain the excellent work” of the investigations bureau.
Meanwhile, Hunter’s attorney says his client was wrongfully acted against and expects to return to work.
The reason Hunter was out of the office was because of a “minor medical issue” and he’s been cleared to return to work, according to Gage, who says his client was not fired.
And he says Hunter is not the only DA employee who experienced retaliation.
“There are several other employees who also are victims of retaliation that have come forward. It’s not just my client,” Gage said.
“I think that in the next several weeks there’s a good likelihood other employees of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office will be making their own governmental [legal] claims, based on what I am uncovering in my investigation,” he added.
“The only good parallel would be the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, in which high ranking officials have been convicted, like [former Sheriff Mike] Carona, or the LA County Sheriff’s Department, which I have a lot of experience with.
“It’s my understanding that some of the deposition testimony that I took in my civil cases with the [LA County] Sheriff’s Department was then utilized by [federal prosecutor] Brandon Fox in the criminal prosecution and conviction of [former Sheriff] Leroy Baca,” Gage said.
“I have experience in gathering evidence in civil cases that is then utilized to convict allegedly corrupt public officials. And I certainly plan to utilize my experience and knowledge as I go through [with] this lawsuit.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.