OC Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who is on track to take over the District Attorney’s Office from Tony Rackauckas in January, has begun laying out his plans for the county prosecutors office.
Spitzer claimed victory Wednesday and has been leading Rackauckas by more than 5 percentage points since election night, as ballots continue to be counted from across the county.
“I feel amazing,” Spitzer said in a phone interview Thursday, adding he didn’t see a pathway where his lead above Rackauckas ends up below 5 percent.
Rackauckas didn’t return messages seeking comment through his campaign and chief of staff.
In the interview, Spitzer said he plans to step up prosecutions of hate crimes, will meet regularly with communities that feel they’re treated unfairly by law enforcement, will not evaluate prosecutors based on conviction rates, and will hold police officers and prosecutors accountable.
“I’m coming into that office on my term[s]. I’m beholden to no one. I owe no one in that office my job,” Spitzer said “I earned it all the way. And so I’m beholden to no one. And that’s what you want” from your district attorney, he said.
“Even though it’s been a painful eight years [seeking the top DA job], it’s a nice place to be,” Spitzer said.
Spitzer said he will not turn a blind eye to corruption by law enforcement or local government leaders.
“This whole idea under Tony that he would look the other way on police misconduct…No. No,” Spitzer said. “Just as I said prosecutors are going to act ethically and honestly in the county, so are police officers….If we learned anything from [the appeals court ruling about informants in Orange County], we learned that police officers are part of the law enforcement team. So if they cheat, there are consequences to their behavior. And they have to be just as accountable as prosecutors.”
Regarding the informants scandal that has led to at least half a dozen criminal sentences being reduced or thrown out, Spitzer said of prosecutors: “There’s going to be consequences if you cheat. So if I find out that you cheat, then you’ll be terminated. And…I’ll report you to the state bar.”
“Cheating is over in the District Attorney’s Office. There’s just no reason to cheat. If you have the evidence” then you move forward in a responsible way. If you don’t, then “you drop” the case “in a responsible way.”
He also criticized the practice of charging people with felonies with the idea of having people plead to misdemeanors. “That’s unethical,” Spitzer said.
Rackauckas has been criticized for allegedly going light on political corruption in investigations, and Spitzer himself has said the current DA “looks the other way on corruption.”
Asked if he plans to step up corruption investigations, Spitzer noted he recently held a news conference criticizing Rackauckas for “failing to charge” Fullerton City Council candidate Paulette Chaffee with stealing campaign signs, after a video apparently showed her removing signs that criticized her.
“She’s still within the statute of limitations. And so there could be a conversation about that,” Spitzer said.
“Police officers, prosecutors, government officials – we all have to be held to a standard…no one is above the law,” Spitzer said.
“I’m not going out of my way to look for political corruption. But certainly if political corruption is occurring, I’m not going to ignore it. And I’m beholden to no one.”
Spitzer said he’ll also be speaking more often with communities that have a strained relationship with police, such as Latinos.
“You’re going to see a lot more communication with communities that tend to have a lot of interaction” with the DA’s office, he said, including minority communities that have trust issues with police departments. There “will be a lot of communication with me” about whether law enforcement is doing what they should be doing, Spitzer said.
“I even met during the campaign with motorcycle groups” who feel they’re targeted by law enforcement, Spitzer said.
Referring to the Los Amigos, the Latino community and advocacy group based in Anaheim, Spitzer said, “I went to Los Amigos during the campaign, and they want me to come back on a regular basis” to talk with them.
“You’re gonna see me meeting with minority communities. I’m very very concerned about hate crime in this county…and how it’s gone up three years in a row,” Spitzer said.
OC residents who are Persian, Muslim, and LGBTQ “are much more vulnerable” and at higher risk of being crime victims, Spitzer said, adding: “I don’t believe that hate crime is being prosecuted properly.”
As for the DA’s prosecutors, Spitzer said one of his main messages to them is, “you’re not going to be judged on your conviction rate…It’s going to be a whole person evaluation: What do you bring to the team, what do you bring to the office.”
“You’re not going to be judged on your conviction rate, because [that’s] what got the [DA’s] office in trouble,” Spitzer added, referring to the informants scandal.
If his lead holds, Spitzer would take control of the DA’s office on Monday, January 7. He said he doesn’t plan on making major changes at first, and would focus on the people who work there.
“I think one of the major messages is that you really shouldn’t see any dramatic change right away,” Spitzer said, noting he previously worked a prosecutor in the office and is familiar with what prosecutors do.
“What I have to focus on is the personnel issues – the people, the human factor,” Spitzer said. “I know a lot of the prosecutors, but I don’t know a lot of the [other] prosecutors. And so the focus is going to be on the talent of the office, the team there…and that takes time.”
“It takes time to know who the people are, what jobs they’re in, how they’re performing, things like that.”
Spitzer said he doesn’t plan on making major changes to the DA’s top executives.
“A lot of them are young, and they’re planing to be there, and I’m not making any significant changes,” he said.
Spitzer said he would eliminate the DA’s chief of staff position, which Rackauckas created and appointed his longtime campaign consultant Susan Kang Schroeder to fill.
A different position, chief assistant district attorney, “is the day to day person that runs that office,” Spitzer said, adding he “absolutely” plans on keeping that position.
Spitzer opened up the possibility of eliminating the DA’s DNA lab – which is separate from a county crime lab – pointing to two grand jury reports that have questioned why the county has two DNA labs.
“We’re going to have a discussion about that,” and an analysis of whether that makes sense and whether it’s an “appropriate use of resources,” Spitzer said.
If Spitzer’s lead holds and he wins the DA race, a special election would be held early next year for his 3rd District supervisor seat. At least four candidates so far have declared plans to run for it: Republican Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray; Republican Irvine Mayor Don Wagner; Democrat Andy Thorburn, a businessman who ran in this year’s primary for the 39th Congressional District; and Democrat Beth Krom, a former mayor and a City Council member in Irvine.
Spitzer said he’s emphasizing to prosecutors who work at the DA’s office they shouldn’t be so worried about him replacing their boss.
“The prosecutors just need to take a deep breath. So many people over there have only worked for Tony their entire career. They’ve been there 20 years. And so they don’t know anything different, and they’re scared. And I get it,” Spitzer.
“I love that office and I want that office to shine. And I want people to enjoy their jobs of being a prosecutor…You get to wear the white hat…You always get to do the right thing as prosecutor,” Spitzer said, adding if they have the evidence they should move forward, and if they don’t they shouldn’t.
“You don’t need to cheat. You have the greatest job in the whole world.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].