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A joint task force between the Orange County District Attorney’s office and federal law enforcement agencies aimed at cracking down on local political corruption fell apart last year, after years of festering distrust between local and federal officials, according to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times published Saturday.
The investigation, authored by Times’ reporters Adam Elmahrek, a former Voice of OC reporter, and Richard Winton, relies on accounts from a dozen anonymous law enforcement sources.
“Multiple sources said both federal and local officials deserve blame for not taking public corruption cases seriously enough and for failing to assign enough of their best investigators and prosecutors to work on the task force,” according to the Times article.
Friction between the DA and federal investigators stemmed in part from separate inquiries into Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, multiple sources told the Times. Federal agents were also suspicious about inquiries by DA supervisors into other FBI investigations and were wary of DA Tony Rackauckas’ perceived political ties to potential targets.
Rackauckas withdrew from the task force in February 2017, writing in a letter to federal officials that his office delayed seeking a search warrant for two months at the request of FBI and IRS officials, only to be told later to stop the investigation entirely. According to the letter, the DA’s office was threatened with obstruction of justice charges if it moved forward on the case, although Rackauckas did not say who made the threat.
Rackauckas’ withdrawal came weeks after the Department of Justice announced an investigation into allegations the DA’s Office and Sheriff’s Department have misused jailhouse informants to get incriminating information against criminal defendants, in violation of their constitutional rights.
The California Attorney General’s office is conducting a similar inquiry.
The DA’s office declined interview requests from the Times but said in a statement the office takes public corruption cases seriously and continues “to maintain a positive relationship” with the FBI, conducting “joint investigations on corruption, terrorism and other cases,” according to the Times article.
Since the Orange County Corruption Task Force began in April 2013 as a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Service and OCDA, it’s unclear how many cases the task force investigated. An FBI spokeswoman, Laura Eimiller, told the Times she could only identify one task force case, the prosecution of a court clerk who has been convicted of fixing tickets in exchange for bribes.
Both the federal and local investigations into Pulido began after a 2013 article written by Elmahrek and published by Voice of OC about a land swap deal in which a Santa Ana city contractor traded a house in Westminster for a small parking lot owned by Pulido. The value of the house was more than double the fair market value of the lot. The contractor later received a $1.35 million no-bid city contract.
Pulido sold the home, making $197,000.
According to the Times, the FBI turned the investigation over to the DA, which cleared Pulido of criminal wrongdoing, although the state ethics agency, the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), fined Pulido $13,000 for violating the state Political Reform Act.
When a medical marijuana collective filed a lawsuit claiming Pulido and other Santa Ana officials accepted money and gifts from dispensaries and that Pulido had a membership interest in at least one pot shop, the DA opened an investigation into whether he received money from marijuana dispensaries.
DA investigators prepared to obtain a search warrant and approached the FBI for information they received about Pulido from a federal informant.
At the same time, the FBI was looking into whether Pulido was accepting money from another local business, and viewed the DA’s requests as “encroaching on their own inquiry,” a source told the Times.
Rackauckas criticized the IRS in his letter, writing that it “never joined the task force and has refused to share information related to joint investigations.”
Federal law enforcement sources who spoke with the Times disagreed over whether anyone threatened the DA with obstruction of justice.
“One said a supervising FBI agent had warned a district attorney’s investigator that continuing with the Pulido inquiry would obstruct the separate federal investigation into the mayor but didn’t explicitly warn of criminal charges,” according to the Times story.
Jodi Balma, a professor of political science at Fullerton College, told the Times that the end of the task force “reinforces what those who walk an ethical fine line already believe — which is there are no consequences for unethical behavior in Orange County.”
Rackauckas’ predecessor, Mike Capizzi, aggressively pursued investigations into local politicians, prompting accusations from the county Republican Party of overzealous and malicious prosecution. When Rackauckas ran for DA, he accused Capizzi of misdirecting funds toward political investigations better handled by state authorities.
Since his election in 1998, Rackauckas’ office has prosecuted some government officials but has struck a stark contrast to Capizzi, largely steering clear of corruption cases and focusing on sex crimes, gang activity and human trafficking.
Balma noted that federal authorities were responsible for county’s largest corruption case in recent history, the 2009 conviction of ex-Sheriff Mike Carona.
Since the end of the task force, at least four former DA personnel have filed complaints or lawsuits against Rackauckas’ office, including his former chief investigator Craig Hunter, who accused Rackauckas of interfering with corruption investigations into politicians he has endorsed.
Two other DA investigators, Tom Conklin and Abraham Santos, filed legal claims alleging interference into political investigations and repeated retaliation for reporting misconduct within the office. Conklin filed a federal lawsuit against the County of Orange in March related to those claims.
A senior deputy district attorney and former judicial candidate, Karen Schatzle, also filed a federal lawsuit against the county, alleging Rackauckas retaliated against her and threatened her career because she ran against a judge he had endorsed.
Rackauckas, who is running for reelection to his sixth term, has denied all of those allegations.
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.