Our Orange County District Attorney Office has become a house of horrors as revelations of misconduct, incompetence, and delayed justice pile up. DA Tony Rackauckas’s failures have not only undermined public confidence in the judicial system – they undermine public safety.
Though the 60 Minutes investigative report highlighted Raukauckas’s disregard for the law, a study by Harvard Law School disclosed that his office’s rate of overturned convictions due to prosecutorial error is among the highest in the state. These overturned criminal convictions are in addition to the botched handling of the homicide case against mass murderer Scott Evan DeKraai, who shot and killed seven in a beauty salon. The DA’s mishandling of the deadliest mass killings in County history meant that DeKraai received a life sentence rather than the death penalty. Also, there have been six recent murder cases that have resulted in dismissed or reduced charges due to errors by the DA’s office.
The Harvard Law School report is just the latest in a litany of findings confirming Rackauckas’s incompetence and misconduct. An Evaluation Committee appointed by Rackauckas found that the DA’s office was a “rudderless ship.” In 2017 a Grand Jury report confirmed the Evaluation Committee’s finding of a lack of leadership by the DA and additionally found the existence of a hostile work place and inadequate sexual harassment policies in the DA’s Office. In the face of the multitude of mishaps, State Senator John Moorlach summed it up best when he said “Tony should not be the D.A. anymore.”
Most recently his delayed response to victim’s reported complaints of rape and sexual assault against Dr. Robicheaux are inexplicable. The unsealed warrants show that the DA dragged its feet in prosecuting the multiple reports of criminal sexual assault.
Given the long and well-documented failures of Rackauckas, one would expect more outrage. The muted response is due to two unrelated factors that silence criticism. In 1995, then District Attorney Michael Capizzi authorized an early morning raid on the home of recently elected Assemblyman Scott Baugh. The outrage over the aggressive prosecutorial tactics on a Republican office holder led to Capizzi being forced from office. When Rackauckas ran for DA, he pledged that he would not criminalize political conduct. Rackauckas has resolutely stuck to his pledge, with the minor exception of the prosecution of Assessor Webster Guillory, which was, unsurprisingly, driven by a personal feud. The most conspicuous example of this pledge at work was Rackauckas’ refusal to investigate the allegations against then Sheriff Michael Carona. Rackauckas’ refusal to investigate Carona for crimes occurring right under his nose forced the Justice Department to take action, leading to Carona’s prosecution and conviction.
Even though Rackauckas bungles prosecutions, his refusal to investigate or prosecute political activity earns him the support, donations and silence of many political elites. To understand this arrangement is to understand both their reluctance to replace Rackauckas, and their reluctance to replace him with anyone who will actually enforce the law. Apparently, for many key Republicans and Democrats, the undermining of the integrity of the criminal justice system is but a small price to pay to avoid the application of the law to them.
In addition to Rackauckas’s unwillingness to investigate politicians, the fear of retaliation by Rackauckas silences would be critics as well. In the last year, four respected employees of the DA’s office have alleged that they were targets of retaliation by Rackauckas because they either reported prosecutorial misconduct or engaged in legitimate political activity. The most troubling claims are those of senior investigators Craig Hunter and Tom Conklin who both independently report that Rackauckas used his office to investigate political rivals and, in one instance, punished the investigator for failing to produce incriminating information on the political rival. Rackauckas’s practice of using his public office to investigate political adversaries is especially repugnant, as is his use of the office to retaliate.
The use of retaliation is a reflection of Rackauckas’s character and his abuse of the office. This lack of character is on full display in his re-election campaign. His chief defense for his failure in office is to use personal invective against his opponent. He avoids running on his record at all cost – his accomplishments are thin and scattered.
Rackauckas’s misconduct and incompetence impact every aspect of the DA’s office. The overturned convictions, the mishandled murder cases, delayed justice and the botched DeKraai case prove that public safety is at risk with Rackauckas in office. His refusal to investigate and prosecute political crimes imperil our community – no one is safe when politicians are above the law. We need a DA that puts public safety first and commits to hold politicians accountable. We need a new DA.
William R. Mitchell – former Chair of Orange County Common Cause, Co-Author and Sponsor of the Orange County Finance and Ethics Commission Ordinance, long standing good government advocate and OC business attorney.
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