OC Supervisor Todd Spitzer is running head-to-head against District Attorney Tony Rackauckas for the DA’s job Tuesday, in one of Orange County’s most closely-watched races.
The face-off, years in the making, pits Rackauckas against his former heir apparent. The two had a very public falling-out in 2010, have feuded ever since, and the race is considered to be highly competitive.
Spitzer was about 3 percentage points behind Rackauckas in the June primary, and split the non-incumbent vote with two other challengers. Spitzer has spent more than twice as much campaign money as Rackauckas: $2.2 million to Rackauckas’ $984,000.
However, Spitzer’s spending and name recognition is far from a guarantee of winning. Incumbents traditionally have a strong built-in advantage to hold onto office, and Rackauckas has built a base of support among elected officials and business owners.
Whoever wins will lead the county prosecutor’s office, which has more than 850 employees and handles more than 60,000 criminal cases each year. The office has about 260 prosecutors and 120 investigators.
Both candidates have been elected officials in OC for decades, and their reputations are well-established.
Rackauckas was first elected DA in 1998, and over the last several years his office has faced accusations of cronyism and misconduct, especially as a number of criminal prosecutions were derailed by illegal misuse of jailhouse informants, known as the “jailhouse snitch scandal.”
A unanimous appeals court ruling found DA prosecutors systematically violated the constitutional rights of defendants through an illegal informants network, and failed to turn over evidence that was favorable to the defense, as required by law.
Illegal use of informants in Orange County has so far resulted in reduced or thrown-out charges in at least seven criminal cases – including one where a gang member facing two murder charges walked free – and potentially affected a dozen more cases.
In the prosecution of mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai, a judge barred the entire DA’s office from prosecuting the case and later threw out the death penalty – a decision upheld on appeal.
Law enforcement actions in the OC informants scandal are under investigation by both the California Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Rackauckas has pushed back at criticism, pointing to a controversial Orange County Grand Jury report that dismissed the allegations of systemic informant abuse as a “myth” perpetuated by the media and the public defender’s office. The grand jury report did not discuss the unanimous appeals court ruling from seven months prior that had found systemic misconduct by the DA’s Office and Sheriff’s Department.
Rackauckas and his chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder, are under state investigation for allegedly accepting illegal undisclosed gifts of private jet travel from billionaire Henry Nicholas, according to an Oct. 29 letter from the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. Nicholas was arrested in Las Vegas in August on suspicion of drug trafficking after police found heroin, meth, cocaine, and ecstasy in his hotel suite.
Rackauckas and Schroeder’s lawyer has said they did travel on Nicholas’ plane, but that the gift limit does not apply because of an exemption in state law for travel to speeches regarding legislative or governmental matters.
Spitzer previously worked for Nicholas, though the two had a falling out years ago.
One of Spitzer’s defining moments in office was when he handcuffed a Christian preacher at a Wahoo’s Fish Taco restaurant in 2015 for allegedly staring at Spitzer and a nearby table knife.
A sheriff’s deputy who responded to the incident said the knife on the table was a butter knife. A Wahoo’s employee told the deputy Spitzer decided to handcuff the preacher because he kept looking at Spitzer.
Spitzer disputed the description of the knife, saying it was a steak knife and that his actions were necessary to protect himself and others.
When news of the incident became public, Spitzer tried to send out a county-funded statement claiming he would have been justified to use deadly force against the preacher because table knives were nearby.
“Police officers are trained not to allow anyone either armed with a knife or ready access to a knife to come within 10 feet,” Spitzer wrote in the statement he wanted to send out. “Use of deadly force is justified under those circumstances.”
His proposed statement was titled, “I WILL NEVER TURN MY BACK ON THE PUBLIC OR ITS SAFETY.”
The county’s chief spokeswoman at the time, Jean Pasco, urged Spitzer not to send it out and warned it could expose the county to legal liability. Spitzer ended up not sending out the statement.
Spitzer and his fellow supervisors fought the public release of the statement and emails, but Voice of OC sued under the state’s Public Records Act and after a year-plus court battle, a judge ordered the county to disclose the records. The supervisors spent over $120,000 in county taxpayer money trying to block the records’ release.
In the DA’s race this year, Spitzer has spent thousands of dollars on mailers and campaign ads focusing on the informant scandal and other allegations against Rackauckas, hoping to convince voters he would lead an honest and accountable prosecutor’s office.
Rackauckas, in turn, has invested in ads alleging Spitzer is “unstable,” “unhinged,” and asking people if they “have experience with him demanding campaign donations in exchange for official actions.”
Rackauckas’ ads level a specific claim about Spitzer’s mental health: that he failed multiple police psychiatric exams – an apparent reference to allegations about Spitzer’s time as a reserve police officer in the 1990s.
In text messages Friday, Spitzer said the psych exam clams are simply not true, and that he “never” was told he failed such an exam. What’s more, Spitzer said, he has been issued a concealed weapon permit and was brought back to the DA’s office in 2008 by Rackauckas himself.
“I have absolutely no mental illness whatsoever,” Spitzer wrote. “They know they’re going to lose on Tuesday and they’re going to lose badly and they are literally grasping at straws.”
One of Spitzer’s defining features is his ability to get his name and face onto TV news, which has been considered helpful for his name recognition in running for DA. His colleagues on the Board of Supervisors have taken notice.
“We would always warn people, when they came to the county [headquarters], to be careful not to be between Supervisor Spitzer and a TV camera, because you were guaranteed to be run over,” said state Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa), who served with Spitzer on the county Board of Supervisors, in a March podcast about Spitzer’s appearance at a Costa Mesa City Council meeting outside his district.
Moorlach laughed, adding: “So I would maybe also think twice this June when you…cast a vote for District Attorney.”
Among Spitzer’s highest-profile appearances were connected to controversies this spring over proposed homeless shelters in Costa Mesa and Laguna Niguel. Spitzer went to City Council meetings in those cities, which are outside his district, to warn residents of the dangers of homeless people.
In public comments before packed meetings, Spitzer labeled homeless people as “sex offenders,” even though there was one convicted sex offender among the several hundred homeless people in motels at the time who could have been eligible for the shelters.
And sex offenders would not have been allowed at the proposed shelters, according to county officials.
Spitzer was in a position, in the month between the first discussion of the shelters and when they were publicly proposed, to ask his colleagues to prohibit convicted sex offenders at the shelters, as the county does with its Bridges Kraemer shelter in Anaheim. Spitzer apparently did not do so, and went on to cite the risk of sex offenders in his warnings to residents.
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who represents Laguna Niguel and other south county cities, has said Spitzer engaged in “fear mongering” when he went to the Laguna Niguel meeting in her district.
In response, Spitzer said at the time: “The fact of the matter is, I have every right to express my point of view throughout this county on particular issues, especially when it affects my votes.”
The winner on Tuesday will have a four-year term leading the DA’s office. The final result may not be known for days, given the large number of ballots that voters mail in close to and on Election Day.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.